Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Evgeny Morozov, Gillian Shephard and Diana Pinto.

To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov

In his new book, To Save Everything, Click Here, Evgeny Morozov looks at how “big data” and “smart” technologies may not be the ideal solution to human problems. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Tom Chivers says Morozov is at his most compelling when discussing politics and the dangers of what he terms “technological solutionism”. “He quotes some unsettling statements from various figures in the tech world promising to do for politics what Amazon.com did for books”. Morozov points out that we can’t rate politicians on a five-star scale: politics is a messy business, with no “right” way of doing things. Written as a follow-up to his previous book The Net Delusion, in which he dispelled the notion that the internet was an ally of political freedom, Morozov argues that perfection is neither achievable nor desirable for politics. Chivers, while accepting his argument, criticises his “hyperactive, shouting tone” and says it makes it difficult to trust him: “I haven’t read, or even heard of, half the people whose internet 'solutionism' he decries, but it’s hard to believe they’re the simple-minded fools that he claims; some suggestion that he has taken their arguments seriously would make his own that much more forceful.”

Writing in the Guardian, Steven Poole stresses that although Morozov is quick to attack other “new-media cyberhustlers”, his attacks go deeper than righteous ridicule. “He also interrogates the intellectual foundations of the cyberhustler, and finds that, often, they have cherry-picked ideas from the scholarly literature that are at best highly controversial in their own fields.” Adding that Morozov “admirably and triumphantly” fulfils the purpose of the book, which is to warn against running politics like a start-up based on “big data”,  Poole praises Morozov as “one of our most penetrating and brilliantly sardonic critics of techno-utopianism”.

The Real Iron Lady: Working with Margaret Thatcher by Gillian Shephard

Whether or not you agreed with her, everyone in Westminster recognised that Margaret Thatcher was a force to be reckoned with. Gillian Shephard attempts to reveal the hidden personality of the first female Prime Minister, speaking to everyone from trade unionists to her eventual successor John Major. The Independent’s Sonia Purnell calls the book “clumsily assembled and, at times, repetitive”.

Despite pointing out these shortcomings, Purnell goes on to say that “it paints a compelling picture of how the disrespect of male colleagues in her early days of power contributed to the creation of the warrior-queen version of Thatcher demonised ever since.” First-hand accounts are used to re-construct the dramas of her political life; from the Falklands war through to the miners’ strike.

The Guardian’s Tristram Hunt describes the book as “clumsily written, shoddily edited, and often embarrassingly reverential". Going on to say it is “too hagiographical” and “offers little sense of the ideology of Thatcherism, or a truthful analysis of the breakdown between prime minister and parliamentary party.” He argues that it simply serves as a retort to Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Thatcher as a “dotty old pensioner” in last year’s The Iron Lady and is an act of “beatification for the blessed Margaret.”

Both critics see a pervasive comparison with today’s Conservative-led coalition lingering beneath the surface, as Purnell describes the parallels between Thatcher’s own rise to power and the apparent leadership ambitions of current Home Secretary Theresa May. Hunt believes it to be “a marked critique of David Cameron's premiership”, suggesting that  “everything the heroic Mrs T was in office, the callow Old Etonian is not.”

Israel Has Moved by Diana Pinto

In this revealing portrait of the new Israel, Diana Pinto presents a country simultaneously moving forward and backward, looking outward and turning in on itself. Writing in the Financial Times, John Reed says Pinto “offers broader reflections on shifts in the nation’s psyche, sometimes to brilliant and startling effect”. Reed describes the book as “more travelogue and philosophical musing than reportage”, owing to its author being a policy analyst. The “effect is of enjoying an engaging and trenchant dinner party conversation with an intelligent traveller brimming with impressions from a trip”.

Pinto takes the reader on a journey from desolate, occupied Palestinian territory tocosmopolitan Tel Aviv, a wealthy bubble of business and nightlife, only a few kilometres from the site of conflict.

The Independent’s Linda Grant says Pinto’s strength as a writer is “her penetrating understanding of what lies beneath the surface of the clichés”. Grant praises her ability to “describe a recognisable Israeli mindset which owes nothing to the discourse of post-colonial narratives but rather a unique viewpoint, developed out of centuries of statelessness”. Nevertheless, she finds Pinto's inability to maintain the reader’s interest a serious shortcoming, and wishes the book had instead been “a lengthy article in a magazine like Foreign Policy, for Pinto's ability to think entirely trumps her capacity to describe and engage”.

Margaret Thatcher in 1974. (Photo by Michael Ward/Getty Images)
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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage