A review of Jon Alexander’s ‘Citizens’ (part 1 of 6): Citizen Warney
I received Jon Alexander’s new book Citizens, now getting quite a lot of coverage in some ‘progressive’ circles while being ignored in others, in the same week as ex-Accrington and Australia cricketer Shane Warne’s untimely death, and I ended up reading the Warne obituaries alongside the section of the book that deals with hero status, and Jon’s advice that the best way to be a great person is to be anti-hero, not a hero.
It seemed to me that the obituary writers and Jon suffered from the same fundamental misinterpretation about what makes a great person great and that, while that doesn’t matter so much when it comes to Warney’s legacy, it matters quite a lot with a writer whose book may very well become a best seller.
The Warne obituaries tended to use, as a central point of narrative about Warne’s genius as a cricketer, his ‘ball of the century’ to Mike Gatting in 1993, but for me Warne’s ‘greatness’, and the reason he remained adored by the people of both Accrington and Australia, was epitomized by the period after he ‘dropped the ashes’, by putting down Kevin Pietersen at first slip at a crucial moment in the final test of the famous 2005 series.
Having put down the fairly straightforward catch, Warne ended up fielding on the deep square leg boundary, as Pietersen went on the counter-attack. In so doing, he was subjected to the baying of the crowd and the “you dropped the ashes” chants. He didn’t appear to flinch. Moreover, in the post-match and post series interviews, which then led to a documentary series starring both him and Pietersen, he never to my knowledge bemoaned the moment of the drop, and never expressed regret at letting his team and country down (compare and contrast Ben Stokes ‘public soul-searching after the most recent Ashes series).
My point here is not Warne was a great because he in some way ‘toughed it out’. Such an interpretation would run counter to any desire to change a world made toxic by such the social conditioning that lead to such expressions of masculinity.
My point is about the expectation of forgiveness that is at the root of all agency. Warne — and of course I’m exercising my right to reconstruction here — was able to deal with the dropped catch because he knew his team mates, and even his country, would forgive him. This prior sense of validation of his integrity was of a type that allowed him not just to move on from a catastrophic drop in the slips to other great cricketing feats, but also over time allowed him to become the kind of anti-hero that Jon wants to see more of. That’s actually what the Warne memorial day crowds get, when the talk about him as a ‘man of the people’, that the cricket commentariat didn’t get in the immediate aftermath of his passing.
Jon talks a lot about agency in his book, but what I don’t think he quite gets is that agency is always relational. This is hardly surprising, because not many people do get it. The power of persona agency is generally seen by ‘progressives’ and conservatives alike as something that is rooted either in ‘character’ or willpower, and progressive agency is really just a question of wanting to be selfless enough person. In the end, and despite the quite heroic attempt to deal with the hero/anti-hero dialectic, it is in this tradition that Jon’s book sits, and which is its most fundamental weakness.
In a later part of this nascent six part engagement with Citizens, I’ll circle back to this question of agency, by way of a reading of Arendt and Nietzsche (though it is already here, in brief) and use this as a platform to examine how the hero/anti-hero dialectic might find its synthesis in a reconceptualization of professionalism. My aim though, rather like Jon’s, is not simply to write stuff down that people may or may not read. My aim is to set out a way in which ‘progressives’, drawn from both socialist and liberal traditions, might coalesce around a theoretical and practical programme of (Meadean) economic and democratic action, in a way which far surpasses the halting attempts at electoral coalition.
Unlike Jon, who explicitly eschews (most)reference to capital-labour relations because he thinks such considerations will get in the way, I’ll incorporate the reality of those power dynamics, because I don’t think we can build the citizening society that we both want without doing so. Nor, incidentally, did RH Tawney, who wrote a version of Jon’s book 102 years ago. Tawney, in a prescient nod to Jon’s idea of the Consumer Story, called his book the Acquisitive Society, and in his distinction between Rights and Functions (and the need to move towards a society based on the latter), presaged a lot of what Jon has to say about citizenship as right and citizen as verb. For a taster of my take in part 3, here’s my Rights & Functions essay from 2018.
For what it’s worth, I think Tawney’s book is better than Jon’s in understanding what might be done, but Jon is right to claim that his book comes at an opportune time. Tawney and the other English pluralists were right, but at just the wrong time. Jon may be a bit less right, but at the righter time, and his power as influencer may be great indeed, as long as he allows me, a non-influencer because I lack the agency of self-forgiveness, to influence him. That would be heroic, indeed.
The rough order of play in my engagement with Jon’s book, and open to change at my whim, is as follows:
Part 2: Story vs materiality: assessing Jon’s three story narrative from a socialist perspective (and disputing the most influential advert ever)
Part 3: RH Tawney, Jon Alexander, and the etymology of professionalism
Part 4: Voice & material struggle: the Habermas and Dusselian sides of the progressive coalition coin, and what it means for Neal Lawson
Part 5: From James Meadway to James Meade and back: a grassroots approach to liberal-socialist coalition that lies beyond ‘good business’, in an age of climate catastrophe.
Part 6: Return to agency: Arendt, Nietzsche, and relational power
I don’t know when part 2 of many will be out. But you’ve got time to buy and read Jon’s book in the meantime.