ISBN 0-7453-1796-0

Georgina Blakeley & Valeria Bryson, Contemporary Political Concepts, A Critical Introduction, (London, Pluto Press, 2002)  £ 14-95 / US$ 22.95

There is little to fear from words until their ideas and concepts are applied to humanity for means of coercion, power and domination. It is when institutions and powerful individuals start governing and dominating words that we have to be wary. This warning and significant understanding, I believe, has been the rationale for the publication of Contemporary Political Concepts, A Critical Introduction, edited by  Georgina Blakeley and Valerie Bryson.

In this book, which consists in the main of eleven essays of lucid brevity, we are introduced to some of the more pertinent modern day concepts and ideas that explain why things are the way they are and act as models for our thoughts and behaviour. Globalisation, Postmodernism, Governance, Civil Society, the Third Way and Empowerment are just some of the concepts explored in this publication, all of which are fine sounding words that could be considered the prerequisite and basis for a developed understanding of modern political and sociological discourse in the ultimate two decades. The problem is, as the editors point out, that these ideas and many more like them can act as sound and smoke, obscuring meaningful discussion and in many cases legitimising that which is illegitimate.

Needless to say, those ideas “implicitly embedded in the words of politicians and most of the broadsheet newspapers” have been taken apart and exposed to rational and critical enquiry and the empirical realities of everyday life. What remains after this academic onslaught exposes much mainstream rhetoric for what it is; the continual justification of exploitation and oppression both of people and the environment.

In consequence, the eleven writers have managed to create a rather fascinating and resourceful introduction to political concepts and the implicit ideas embedded within them. It is a book for those interested in breaking free from mainstream systems of indoctrination that inevitably decimate much ‘knowledge’ and intend to structure the way reality is perceived. In this manner, not only is the publication of particular use to critical students of politics and sociology, but also for those who wish to arm themselves with intellectual defence mechanisms that are generally required when confronted with the absurdities of news-speak, or the banal spoutings of politicians and businessmen and -women.

What also makes this publication worth hunting out is that it is written by citizens of the United Kingdom, most of whom are university lectures, doctors, or professors. This does not mean the reading is dry, dull, or loaded with snobbery, but what it does indicate is that we are exposed to not only US perspectives, but also, Anglo-European, a factor that is often missing when reading contemporary critiques of the language of political discourse.  

Each of the eleven essays follow a similar format that enables the reader to “critically examine concepts and explore their logic and implications” with relative ease. The essays run to no more than twenty pages apiece which means that they can be read in one brief sitting by both the general and specialised reader. A paragraph summarises the work in mind and then we are exposed to historical and mainstream orthodoxy, current usage of the contested terms and offered critical examination and analysis of those ideas. At the end of each essay one finds a well documented reference guide and for those interested a guide to further reading. 

Essentially, where systems of belief and ideas are received on the trust of some other authority there is faith, and where there is faith there is often ignorance. It follows that in the neo-liberal, capitalist world revealed by the co-editors Blakeley and Bryson, much ignorance is produced to favour, support and justify that very system.

It is in this light that the book contains a broad and necessary warning: all ideas must be treated as hypotheses until fully investigated and understood. Thus, to prevent cruelty and suffering and inflicting further miseries upon people, we must not only question others, but also ourselves and our own language and the ideas that stem from it. For if I have control over words, selecting and managing them to give particular viewpoints and understandings, then whilst you echo them to yourself unquestioningly, you allow me privilege of power inside your mind. And if there is resonance, I can influence your thoughts, I can modify your behaviour. The word-plotter has always had this unique power and if this power goes unchecked, we may be creating the grounds for new dangers, techniques that make possible new intensities of control and totalitarian possibilities within the State and Market.

Drawing from a myriad of eminent thinkers across the political and philosophical spectrum, the writers of this indispensable introduction to contemporary political discourse have offered the reader well-designed tools and intellectual concepts that will not only facilitate comprehension and understanding and explanation of the world we live in, but also, as Georgina Blakeley so thoughtfully notes, tools that can be used to empower us, so that maybe one day we can all begin to change our society for the betterment of our children and possibly for theirs.

The reviewer Robert Hosking is a freelance writer and teacher who lives in Spain.

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