Good And Bad Power: The Ideals and Betrayals of Government

Posted on: 27th March 2008  |
Author: Geoff Mulgan
Publication details: Penguin, 2007 384 pages
ISBN: 978-0141023007

According to Prospect Magazine, Geoff Mulgan is one of Britain’s leading “public intellectuals”. He founded the centre left think tank, Demos, while working for Gordon Brown MP. It became a key agent for the renewal of the British Labour Party’s thought in the run-up to Labour’s return to power. He subsequently served as Head of Strategy for the UK government and as Director of the Downing Street Policy Unit. Unlike many of his colleagues, though, he has not come racing out of power to write kiss-and-tell memoirs, nor to exploit lucrative private-sector rewards. Mulgan is now running a social research and innovation centre in London’s East End and spending time lecturing to senior civil servants in Australasia.  This is a consistent trajectory for a recovering Marxist who once considered a vocation to Buddhist monasticism.

Mulgan’s book seeks, humbly, to be a wide-ranging guide to the nature of the state and its governance from someone who has been “inside the machine” and has covered a breathtaking amount of reading in preparation for the present project. It presents the thoughts of a human who, by any standards, displays himself to be a spiritual “seeker” as well as a sharp political judge here.

He explains with certainty that “by the fifth century BCE, most forms of the state that we know today already existed”. States, for Mulgan, “exist because they are useful to their rulers and can be useful to everyone else” and their most visible source of power is “force”, or what Max Weber called “monopolies of violence”. 

Mulgan is profoundly suspicious of foundational ethics as a useful guide either to designing states or as a means by which to explain the behaviour of those who work in them.  Consequently, state bodies are subject to “capture” by rulers and élites for their own ends and constantly need to be held in check by a set of policy tools and civic engagements which enhance their performance and re-route them beyond their own interests. When this works, states – at their best – can be “servants”. When this does not work they can be rapacious.

At one level, then, Good And Bad Power succeeds as a guide to what leading in government is really like. In the cauldron of decision-making, practical judgment is everything and there is neither the space nor the time to reach for reserves of substantial principle. But in developing this level of analysis with quite astonishing breadth, Mulgan risks a possible lack of depth. Consequently one is led to suspect that the author suffers from all the struggles of that part of the British left that now sees its noble traditions in tatters in the face of, first, the barbarity of Stalinist communism and, second, the vacuity of post-modernity. In this historical moment it thus becomes necessary to reach for legitimation from pretty much every faith tradition other than Christianity but in a manner that does not quite pull off the trick of holding the fragments of previous certainty together. Alternatively, it may be that constraints of space and time have not allowed Mulgan to develop his argument in as much detail as he would have liked.

The few quotes from St Thomas seem to misinterpret him. No social innovation or useful social insight seems to be fully recognised from Christian sources, whether in, say, the form of the mutualist Jesuit Reductions in South America (or in Mulgan’s more recent use of the Jesuits’ Cristo Rey model of schools for truants, to transform UK educational policy). Meanwhile, the examples of specific states and their actions at first sight seem wide ranging but on closer inspection are more limited than the ambitious sweep implies: So, while China, parts of South Asia and the developed world feature greatly, Eastern Europe and Africa register little attention of any meaningful kind. Given the history of the twentieth century, this is notable. Moreover, if one is making claims such as those quoted at the outset of this review, geographical concentration seems a major omission: Tito’s Yugoslavia, for example, tried a range of co-operative strategies that have not been commonplace among states over the centuries. Meanwhile, the nature and form of African states and their “kleptocracy”, “urban bias” or “post-imperial” structure, in a global economy where oil prices have a disproportionate impact on bureaucratic survival, are conceivably more than ancient conundrums refashioned in the present, as Mulgan implies.  This is without mentioning the role of ideology in driving mainland China’s misreading of the rise of the European Union in the sixties, seventies and eighties, which arguably had impacts on Chinese policy that a simple “what works” framework risks being unable to read for its lack of a root into what might matter.

Nevertheless, read alongside Mulgan’s journalism, speeches, and his earlier Politics In An Anti-Political Age, Good And Bad Power makes rich sense not least in the face of some theology that idealises the governing task. It could do, though, with a dash more of the idealism towards which the book’s subtitle reaches in hope. All the same, when Mulgan chose public service over the temple life he also made the brave decision to seek to make sense of the world with all its impurities as it is, as well as the possibilities as to what it might become.  For this at the least we should thank him.

Francis Davis

 Find this book at Penguin Books



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