Visions of the good society

Stuart White on left-wing political philosophy.

The first part of a fascinating interview with the Oxford political theorist, Next Left blogger and occasional contributor to the NS Stuart White has been posted on the New Left Project site by Edward Lewis.

The conversation between White and Lewis ranges quite widely, but one thing in particular caught my eye: something White says when he's listing what he takes to be the fundamental problems of political philosophy. He identifies these, uncontroversially, as the problems of authority, social justice and the good life. Lewis had asked him what a "leftist political philosophy" would look like.

On the third of these key questions -- the nature of the good life -- White says that there isn't an obviously, unambiguously "leftist answer". Rather, he says, there's a division on the left between those who take the Rawlsian view (that because reasonable people have different visions of what is good, "the point of a good polity is not to promote a particular vision of the good life, it's to ensure that goods are distributed fairly so that we can then go out and pursue our respective visions of the good life on a fair basis") and those who believe, on the contrary, that "politics should answer the question of what the good life is".

I think he's right about this. Indeed, it's a division White has addressed before, in his essay on "The new progressives", written for the NS back in September, when he tried to unpack some of the disagreements between "left republicans" and "left communitarians" over how the left should think about the "common good":

For at least some left republicans, it is important that the common good should be understood fundamentally in terms of specifically civic and secular ideals, such as liberty and equality -- a point of agreement with the centre republicans. Barack Obama's inauguration speech is seen as a model in this respect. Right communitarians tend to see secularism as part of the problem to be overcome. Left communitarians are ambiguous in this area. They sometimes incline to a political language of the "good life", a language that has some illiberal connotations.

Among these "left communitarians", White numbered Jon Cruddas, whose article in last week's NS, "Time for a truly English Labour Party", is, in part, a paean to a "conservative" common culture, and who insists, pace White and Rawls, that a renewed left-of-centre politics should contain an answer to the question of "what it means to be human".

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Tashphotography / Stockimo / Alamy
Show Hide image

The Negroni fools no one – it’s easy to make and contains nothing but booze

It is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

The cocktail is designed to lie about its origins; no wonder it reached its apogee during Prohibition, which forced everyone with an unrepentant thirst to lie about their cravings. Even today, when only extreme youth, religious belief or personal inclination prevents a person from draining the bar dry, the cocktail continues its career of dishonesty. It hides ingredients or methods. It provides a front for poor-quality booze. And it often dissolves, within its inscrutable depths, mountains of sugar, enabling drinkers to pose as sophisticates while downing something that tastes like a soft drink – to get drunk without leaving the playpen.

This is why I love the Negroni, which fools no one. It is easy to make and contains nothing but pure booze. Despite being a third sweet vermouth, it isn’t saccharine: the other two thirds, equal measures of gin and Campari, may have something to do with this. And it is the colour of danger, a red rag to anyone jaded by cocktail-world bull.

They say it was invented in Florence at the request of a Count Negroni, who wanted a drink unsullied by club soda – a drink stiff enough to get a man back on a bucking horse, perhaps, since this Count may have been a rodeo rider. I prefer to believe that the Count, if Count he was, came in, tossed down enough strong liquor to start telling stories about his American adventures, and, when he finally staggered out into the night, the exasperated bartender poured three straight shots into a single glass and baptised this wondrous reviver in grateful homage to the fabulist who had inspired it.

In a former glue factory a very long way from Florence or America, the East London Liquor Company now makes very good gin – Batches One and Two, the former tannic with Darjeeling as well as cassia bark, pink grapefruit peel, and coriander seeds; the latter redolent of savoury, bay, thyme and lavender. Transforming these plants into excellent alcohol seems an improvement on boiling down horses for adhesive, and the company also makes superb Negronis from Batch Two.

We sit outside, in a carpark made marginally more glamorous by border boxes of Batch Two botanicals, and marvel at the transformation of this grimy part of East London, next door to a park intended to give Victorian working men brief respite from lives all too lacking in myth or fantasy. It is a reincarnation at least as miraculous as the transformation of three strong and entirely unalike spirits into the delectable harmony of the Negroni. The sun shines; a fountain plashes. Nuts and charcuterie arrive. All is right with the world.

I leave my herbaceous bower and dangerously pleasing drink for a peek at the large copper distillery behind the bar, walking in past the fountain, a whimsical stone construction that pours vermilion liquid into two, tiered basins topped by a chubby putto clutching a rather reluctant fish.

And then I stop. And double back. Vermilion liquid? It is, indeed, a Negroni fountain. There are even slices of orange floating in the basin. I dip a finger: the taste is slightly metallic but still undeniably that potent mixture of booze, botanicals, bitterness, and just a hint of sweetness. A streak of citrus from the orange slices. It turns out that the world’s most straightforward cocktail lends itself to a decadent neo-Renaissance fantasy. There’s a message here, one forthright as a temperance tract: without imagination, we would have no lies – but no Negronis, either.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder