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Britain’s meritocratic moment, 1937–1988
Author: Dean Blackburn

This books explores the non-fiction publishing of Penguin Books to offer a new account of Britain’s post-war politics. This account decentres some of the categories that scholars have commonly employed to understand this period. The three decades after 1944, it argues, constituted a ‘meritocratic moment’ in Britain’s intellectual politics. That is not to say that political elites sought to realise a meritocratic order. But the argument that status and rewards should be determined by observable merits was accommodated by key ideological formations and provided a starting point for much political thinking. The perceived crises of the 1970s led to the eclipse of this meritocratic moment. But to understand this development as a victory for Thatcherism is problematic. Indeed this ideology was not able to accommodate or account for many of the antagonisms that followed from the collapse of the post-war political order.

Dean Blackburn

This chapter explores the intellectual politics of the decade that succeeded the 1945 election. In this period, Penguin Books retreated from the political stage, and the political texts that it did publish garnered relatively little attention. It is argued that this development reflected the hegemony of a set of sociological assumptions about the post-war period. Not only did it become common for policy-makers to assume that social mobility was eroding class-based antagonisms, but many actors also endorsed epistemologies that marginalised ‘ideological’ modes of thought.

in Penguin Books and political change
Dean Blackburn

By the early 1960s, the relative optimism that had informed political debate in the late 1950s had dissipated. Contemporaries became particularly concerned about Britain’s apparent economic decline, and in their efforts to propose solutions to this phenomenon, many political elites drew upon meritocratic language. This proliferation of meritocratic rhetoric might lead us to conclude that this period was the zenith of Britain’s meritocratic moment. But this chapter argues that the apparent ubiquity of meritocratic reasoning in this period concealed a political rupture. Indeed when we examine the arguments made by Penguin authors who helped to shape the debate about decline, we can observe the emergence of reasoning that was breaking with the fragile consensus of the preceding decade.

in Penguin Books and political change
Dean Blackburn

Shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War, a vibrant debate about post-war reconstruction gathered momentum. Indeed many intellectuals and policy-makers felt compelled to establish a vision for the future that could inform the war effort. This chapter explores this debate and argues that it facilitated the ascendency of meritocratic logic. Contributors to reconstruction debates may have sought to realise different ideological objectives, but they often shared a common commitment to equalising educational opportunity and strengthening the relationship between merit and rewards.

in Penguin Books and political change
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Dean Blackburn

This chapter employs Penguin Books as a lens through which to view the intellectual politics of late inter-war Britain. By tracing the way in which the publisher’s authors responded to the twin threats of economic crisis and fascism, it claims that this period witnessed the emergence of an emergent ideological settlement. At the core of this settlement was what can be termed a ‘professional ideal’. This ideal privileged the expertise of professionals and was informed by a hostility to both aristocratic and entrepreneurial conceptions of social justice.

in Penguin Books and political change
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Being reasonable?
Stacey Gutkowski

The conclusion returns to the generational question. It argues that for hiloni millennials as a religio-class, neo-Romantic conceptions of self and nation have come to play a much greater role within hiloni habitus. This is a process which began in the 1980s but has intensified during their critical years coming of age in the post-Oslo national atmosphere. What it is to be reasonable is shaped significantly by hiloni millennial neo-Romanticism. The conclusion connects the personal level to high politics. It carefully analyses the intersection between Israeli government discourse about what is a reasonable response to Hamas and what is happening at the level of the self. It argues that these intersections facilitate acceptance of the Occupation’s status quo among hiloni millennials – even among those who reject Occupation.

in Religion, war and Israel’s secular millennials
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Stacey Gutkowski

This chapter sets out historical events since hiloni millennials have come of age in the 2000s and 2010s, framed by Karl Mannheim’s critical years hypothesis. It traces continuities and subtle differences in what it feels like to be hiloni between Generation X and millennials. These are not visible at the level of public debate or religious practice but feature within self narratives. These subtle differences intersect with and feed a broader conservative shift in attitudes towards Occupation among Jewish-Israelis generally, including hiloni millennials. It introduces the main argument about hiloni millennial neo-Romanticism and how Pierre Bourdieu’s social theory is used in the book.

in Religion, war and Israel’s secular millennials
Stacey Gutkowski

In recent years, questions of space and the Jewish homeland have been at the forefront of public debate in Israel, catalysed by increased settlement building, Jewish and Palestinian activism at the Holy Esplanade in Jerusalem and Palestinian spatial resistance to Occupation. Using Tovi Fenster’s tripartite conception of spatial comfort, belonging and commitment to analyse attitudes towards the Temple Mount, this chapter analyses hiloni hierarchies of what counts as home – including Tel Aviv as a hiloni-majority city. I argue that young hiloni conceptions of themselves as reasonable fulcrum citizens have been forged in important ways through their assessment of what parts of the Jewish homeland are really home.

in Religion, war and Israel’s secular millennials
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Stacey Gutkowski

This chapter looks at how young hilonim have imagined global jihad and Islamic fanaticism as conceptual categories. It juxtaposes this with their far more nuanced understanding of Palestinian nationalism, political Islamism and anti-Semitism within the lands of Israel and Palestine. The chapter presents evidence that young hiloni attitudes towards Hamas are shaped far more by their personal, intimate experience with violence than by stereotypes about Islam. Hamas and Hezbollah are, in their view, rational but not reasonable actors. Theoretically, this chapter critiques as too simplistic William Cavanaugh’s account of the liberal, secular myths of religious violence.

in Religion, war and Israel’s secular millennials
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Stacey Gutkowski

This chapter introduces the main argument and contribution to the comparative academic literature on political violence, religion and ethnic nationalism. It also sets out two research questions and how these intersect throughout the book: First, as a young ‘secular’ Jew, what does it feel like coming of age during a phase of national conflict when Palestinian and Israeli government leaders, not just fringe figures, use religio-ethnic symbols to motivate and divide? Second, what do violent political conflicts look and feel like to people who claim to distance themselves from the majority religious tradition in their given context – and yet are fundamentally embedded within it? It sets out the logic of using Israel as a non-secular ‘hard case’ to explore this.

in Religion, war and Israel’s secular millennials