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John Stuart Mill and the Antagonistic Foundation of Liberal Politics

  • Brandon P. Turner (a1)
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Abstract

The agonistic critique of liberalism argues that liberal theory unwisely eliminates conflict from the design of liberal-democratic institutions and understandings of liberal citizenship. John Stuart Mill anticipates and resolves the agonistic critique by incorporating several theories of antagonism into his political theory. At the institutional level, Mill places two antagonisms at the center of his political theory: the tension between the popular and bureaucratic elements in representative government, on the one hand, and that between the democratic and aristocratic elements in modern society, on the other. These tensions guarantee the fluidity of the political sphere. At the experiential level, Mill's embrace of antagonism is even more complete, as he argues that even our objectively correct opinions must be ceaselessly contested to become properly ours. The theory that emerges is both agonistic and liberal; further, it calls into question current liberal attitudes concerning conflict and antagonism.

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1 Stephen Holmes, one of liberalism's most ardent defenders, argues precisely this, that liberalism profitably brackets normative debates that can find no satisfactory resolution otherwise. See Passions and Constraint: On the Theory of Liberal Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 202–35.

2 Agonistic theorists come in a variety of forms and through an impressive diversity of intellectual traditions. Under the rubric of “democratic agonism” might be placed the work of Chantal Mouffe, who arrives at agonism through Carl Schmitt, and Sheldon Wolin, through Alexis de Tocqueville. The rubric of “existential agonism” is exemplified by William Connolly, through Nietzsche and Foucault, and Bonnie Honig, through Hannah Arendt. Proponents of “liberal agonism” include the self-creating liberal theories of George Kateb, through Emerson, and Richard Flathman; modus vivendi liberals, like the contemporary John Gray, fall into this category as well, arriving through the work of Isaiah Berlin and Michael Oakeshott. See Mouffe , On the Political (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005); Wolin , Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought, expanded edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004); Connolly , Identity/Difference: Democratic Negotiations of Political Paradox (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991); Honig Bonnie, Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993); Kateb , The Inner Ocean: Individualism and Democratic Culture (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992); Flathman , Pluralism and Liberal Democracy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005); Gray John, Two Faces of Liberalism (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2000).

3 Schmitt Carl, among others, makes all three critiques in his The Concept of the Political, trans. Schwab George (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996): on the lack of adversaries, 28; on the taming of conflict, 19–25; on individualism, 69–79. Holmes has acknowledged the force of these critiques; see Anatomy of Antiliberalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 40–41.

4 Citations of Mill's work are derived from the Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, ed. John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963–1991), hereafter CW. Citations to individual texts will be abbreviated as follows: CRG = Considerations on Representative Government; OL = On Liberty. “Coleridge,” CW, 10:123; “Civilization,” CW, 18:131; CRG, CW, 19: 458, 397.

5 See especially on Mill's closet romanticism Capaldi Nicholas, John Stuart Mill: A Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 365; “John Stuart Mill's Defense of Liberal Culture,” in Mill and the Moral Character of Liberalism, ed. Eldon J. Eisenach (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998), 77—114; see also Devigne Robert, Reforming Liberalism: J. S. Mill's Use of Ancient, Religious, Liberal, and Romantic Moralities (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006); Bernard Semmel, “John Stuart Mill's Coleridgean Neoradicalism,” in Moral Character, 49–78.

6 Two classic arguments to the effect that Mill unsuccessfully and confusedly served two incompatible ideals can be found in Letwin Shirley Robin, The Pursuit of Certainty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965) and Cowling Maurice, Mill and Liberalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963). The characterization of a “schizophrenic” Mill belongs to Gertrude Himmelfarb's “two Mills” thesis. See Himmelfarb's introduction to Mill J. S., Essays on Politics and Culture (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1962); On Liberty and Liberalism: the Case of John Stuart Mill (New York, NY: Random House, 1974).

7 Mouffe, On the Political, 4.

8 Wolin , “The Liberal/Democratic Divide: On Rawls's Political Liberalism,” Political Theory 24 (1995): 98. For more on institutional agonism, see Wolin , “Fugitive Democracy,” in Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political, ed. Benhabib Seyla (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 3145; Honig, Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics; Mouffe, On the Political; Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox (New York, NY: Verso, 2000); Jane Mansbridge, “Using Power/Fighting Power: The Polity,” in Democracy and Difference, 46–66.

9 Wolin, “The Liberal/Democratic Divide,” 118. Agonism takes its name from the Greek αγων, meaning “contest.” The agonistic literature draws considerable inspiration on this point of ceaseless contestation from an early essay by Nietzsche Friedrich, entitled “Homer's Contest,” in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Kaufmann Walter (New York, NY: Viking Penguin, Inc., 1954), 3239. Nietzsche suggests the original meaning of the practice of ostracism was meant to prevent the ancient Greek contests from ending by removing any genius against whom struggle was always futile. See especially on this point Honig , “The Politics of Agonism: A Critical Response to ‘Beyond Good and Evil: Arendt, Nietzsche, and the Aestheticization of Political Action’ by Dana R. Villa,” Political Theory 21 (1993): 528–33.

10 Mouffe cites so-called third way politics in the West as an example of “postpolitical” politicking. Mouffe, On the Political, 56–60.

11 CRG, CW, 19:515. Likewise, Mill writes in “Bentham,” CW, 10:108: “A centre of resistance, round which all the moral and social elements which the ruling power views with disfavour may cluster themselves, and behind whose bulwarks they may find shelter from the attempts of that power to hunt them out of existence, is as necessary where the opinion of the majority is sovereign, as where the ruling power is a hierarchy or an aristocracy.” Mill owes a conspicuous debt to Tocqueville on this point. As Sheldon Wolin writes, Tocqueville's contrast between aristocracy and the new world of democracy is an attempt “to teach democracy the importance of providing a counterprinciple at the center of its own system” (Wolin , Presence of the Past: Essays on the State and the Constitution [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989], 76).

12 Anschutz R. P., The Philosophy of J. S. Mill (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), 3132. Also, see Duncan Graeme, Marx and Mill: Two Views of Social Conflict and Social Harmony (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 259; n. 6, above.

13 Thompson Dennis, John Stuart Mill and Representative Government (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976), 11.

14 Urbinati Nadia, Mill on Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 44.

15 Jonathan Riley writes that citizens of a democracy must exercise “political competence”—a more general ability to identify worthwhile political ends—while its governors (or administrators) must exercise “skilled competence”—the ability to design means to meet ends. From Riley , “Mill's Neo-Athenian Model of Liberal Democracy,” in John Stuart Mill's Political Thought: A Bicentennial Reassessment, ed. Urbinati Nadia and Zakaras Alex (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 227.

16 CRG, CW, 19: 436. Mill's “Many” were not cave-dwellers, but he held no illusion that they were fit to govern, or even to vote—an act he argued constituted “power over others” (CRG, CW, 470, 488–89). The two things standing between the masses of modern Britain and an ideal body of active citizens were low levels of education and a widespread lack of leisure necessary to develop administrative skills (CRG, CW, 467–81). See Zakaras, “J. S. Mill, Individuality, and Participatory Democracy,” in Reassessment.

17 CRG, CW, 19: 440. For a broad discussion of bureaucracy's role in Mill's representative scheme, see Warner Beth E., “John Stuart Mill's Theory of Bureaucracy within Representative Government: Balancing Competence and Participation,” Public Administration Review 61 (2001): 403–13.

18 CRG, CW, 19: 423. For the view that the two roles are mutually constraining, see Thompson, John Stuart Mill and Representative Government, 3–11. For a contrary argument—that the two roles are mutually reinforcing—see Miller J. Joseph, “J. S. Mill on Plural Voting, Competence, and Participation,” History of Political Thought 24 (2003): 647–67.

19 CRG, CW, 19:432. Whether this role for the Many is sufficiently democratic has been the subject of much debate. A particularly illuminating description of the elitist/democratic tension in Mill's thought is Graeme Duncan's discussion of Mill's “democratic Platonism.” See Duncan, Marx and Mill, 259.

20 As Holmes writes, this arrangement means that “experts … would be on tap, not on top” (Passions, 191).

21 CRG, CW, 19:439–40.

22 CRG, CW, 19:439.

23 CRG, CW, 19:440–41.

24 There is an interesting parallel between the popular/bureaucratic antagonism and Mill's discussion in A System of Logic of the relationship between art and science (and, correspondingly, imagination and reason). He writes: “The relation in which rules of art stand to doctrines of science may be thus characterized. The art proposes to itself an end to be attained, defines the end, and hands it over to the science. The science receives it, considers it as a phenomenon or effect to be studied, and having investigated its causes and conditions, sends it back to art with a theorem of the combinations of circumstances by which it could be produced. Art then examines these combinations of circumstances, and according as any of them are or are not in human power, pronounces the end attainable or not” (System of Logic, CW, 8:944).

25 “Bentham,” CW, 10:99–100.

26 Letter to Harriet Mill, 15th January 1855, CW, 14:294.

27 By definition, a separate body of elites—whether maintained only at the moment of founding or as a permanent check on popular institutions—removes at least part of the controlling power from the demos. If it removes too little, leaving the majority free to overrule elites at any critical junction, then, Mill argues, the elite body guarantees its perpetual defeat by setting itself apart and against the population, as a foreign body (CRG, CW, 19:514–15). If, instead, the elites retain the ultimate controlling power, then Mill asserts the system is more accurately labeled despotism—this is his crucial departure from Comte's brand of elitism (“Auguste Comte and Positivism,” CW, 10:314).

28 Ibid. Raeder Linda has recently argued in John Stuart Mill and the Religion of Humanity (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2002) that Mill's agreements with Comte are much more consistent and consequential than previously recognized. On her reading, Mill and Comte share the desire to “[establish] a method by which philosophers can reach unanimity regarding moral and political truths” (79). See also Hamburger Joseph, John Stuart Mill on Liberty and Control (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001). However, the idea that Mill sought unanimity on questions of moral and political truth is unconvincing. As Mill writes in his Autobiography, “some particular body of doctrine in time rallies the majority round it, organizes social institutions and modes of action comfortably to itself, education suppresses this new creed upon the new generations without the mental processes that have led to it, and by degrees it acquires the very same power of compression, so long exercised by the creeds of which it had taken place. Whether this noxious power will be exercised, depends on whether mankind have by that time become aware that it cannot be exercised without stunting and dwarfing human nature. It is then that the teachings of the ‘Liberty’ will have their greatest value” (“Autobiography,” CW, 1:259–60). See also chapter 2 of OL, “On the Liberty of Thought and Discussion.”

29 CRG, CW, 19:441. Mill borrows the term “sinister interests” from Bentham.

30 Madison James, Federalist, no. 10 (New York, NY: New American Library, 1961).

31 CRG, CW, 19:486.

32 CRG, CW, 19:456–57. At times, Mill uses “aristocracy” in the more traditional sense of denoting landed elites. See, for example, “De Tocqueville on Democracy in American[1],” CW, 18:63, 78. In CRG, however, Mill's notion of aristocracy is considerably closer to a meritocratic elite; see, for example, his discussion of the relevant qualifications for plural voting in chapter 8.

33 As an anonymous reviewer points out, there is a third structural antagonism present in CRG existing between “labourers” and “employers of labour,” which Mill describes in the closing pages of chapter 6. I do not include this source of conflict in the discussion of Mill's theory of antagonistic liberalism for three reasons: first, “class legislation” is for Mill endemic to all forms of government, not only or even especially to liberal democracies (CRG, CW, 19:446); second, the class antagonism is a kind of subset of the more general “democratic” logic that partakes in the democratic/aristocratic antagonism; third, Mill gives no evidence in CRG that class antagonism can be productive in the way structural antagonism is.

34 Efforts have recently been made to rehabilitate Mill's more antidemocratic proposals. See Miller, “Plural Voting”; Urbinati, Mill on Democracy, 93–104. Open polling, for example, was a way of subjecting average, self-interested citizens to the public-minded and contentious eye of their intellectual betters; plural voting sought to award educated citizens with a disproportionate electoral voice; Hare's system would replace the relatively small and often uneducated candidates of local districts with a greater selection of candidates culled from the nation's best citizens. On plural voting, CRG, CW, 19:473–74; on open polling, 493–95; on Hare's system, 448–66.

35 CRG, CW, 19:459.

36 CRG, CW, 19:460.

37 On Mill's aristocratic leanings, see especially Kahan Alan S., Aristocratic Liberalism: The Social and Political Thought of Jacob Burckhardt, John Stuart Mill, and Alexis de Tocqueville (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).

38 CRG, CW, 19:458.

39 CRG, CW, 19:460.

40 CRG, CW, 19:458. Mill's tone here strikes a Nietzschean chord. Others have noted the parallels between Nietzsche and Mill: see Devigne, Reforming Liberalism, 182–85.

41 CRG, CW, 19:458.

42 See Berlin Isaiah, “John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life,” in Liberty, ed. Hardy Henry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 218–51. Others have called Berlin's Millian liberalism a theory of “agonistic liberalism”—see Gray John, Berlin (London, UK: Fontana, 1995); Riley Jonathan, “Interpreting Berlin's Liberalism,” American Political Science Review 95 (2001): 283–93.

43 “Comte and Positivism,” CW, 10:336–37.

44 Urbinati, Mill on Democracy, xi, 82.

45 Ibid., 46.

46 Ibid., 77, 84, 103; Beitz Charles R., Political Equality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 36.

47 Urbinati, Mill on Democracy, 96.

48 CRG, CW, 19:478, emphasis added.

49 CRG, CW, 19:478–79, emphasis added. For Mill on plural voting, see chapter 8 of CRG. Urbinati's treatment of Mill's plurality proposal ultimately runs aground precisely because she takes an agonistic principle (equality) for Mill's principle (utility). See especially Urbinati, Mill on Democracy, 93–103.

50 Mill suggests that if plurality and suffrage extension proved incommensurable, it was the expansion of suffrage—and not plural voting—that should be constrained: “[I]f the most numerous class, which … is the lowest in the educational scale, refuses to recognise a right in the better educated, in virtue of their superior qualifications, to such plurality of votes as may prevent them from being always and hopelessly outvoted by the comparatively incapable, the numerical majority must submit to have the suffrage limited to such portion of their numbers, or to have such a distribution made of the constituencies, as may effect the necessary balance between numbers and education in another manner” (Mill, “Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform,” CW, 19:325).

51 Other variants of the notion include, to name a few, Hirschman Albert O., The Passions and the Interests: Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977); Mitchell's Joshua description of “the fable of liberalism” in Plato's Fable: On the Mortal Condition in Shadowy Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), xii, especially 167–74. The most forceful indictment of liberalism's pacifying tendencies, of course, is Nietzsche's. See especially his description of the “last man” in the prologue to Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

52 Connolly, Identity/Difference, 166.

53 Scholars of Mill's work dispute the relationship between the early piece “Spirit of the Age” and Mill's subsequent work—particularly On Liberty. For a brief overview of the dispute, see Friedman Richard B., “An Introduction to Mill's Theory of Authority,” in John Stuart Mill's Social and Political Thought: Critical Assessments, ed. Smith G. W. (New York, NY: Routledge, 1998). While I find the view that “Spirit” is largely a product of a youthful enthusiasm for the St. Simonians to be a persuasive one, I do not think the tension is consequential here.

54 “Spirit of the Age,” CW, 22:228–30.

55 Ibid., 231.

56 George Kateb's theory of democratic individuality—which is as much a powerful defense of the liberal ethos as it is the democratic condition—is built around Nietzsche's pronouncement as well. Kateb, Inner Ocean, 136–39. This early essay is also one of the best examples of Mill's intellectual debts to the Romantic tradition. On the modern debt to Romanticism, see Charles Larmore, The Romantic Legacy (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1996).

57 “Spirit of the Age,” CW, 22:240.

59 Ibid., 238–39.

60 Quoted in Hannah Arendt: The Recovery of the Public World, ed. Melvyn A. Hill (New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 1979), 336.

61 “Spirit of the Age,” CW, 22:234.

62 OL, CW, 28:258.

63 Ibid., 235.

64 Ibid., 229.

65 Ibid., 232.

66 Writes Mill, on the difference between properly philosophical tolerance and something he calls “indifference”: “For among the truths long recognized by Continental philosophers, but which very few Englishmen have yet arrived at, one is, the importance, in the present imperfect state of mental and social science, of antagonist modes of thought: which, it will one day be felt, are as necessary to one another in speculation, as mutually checking powers are in a political constitution. A clear insight, indeed, into this necessity is the only rational or enduring basis of philosophical tolerance; the only condition under which liberality in matters of opinion can be anything better than a polite synonym for indifference between one opinion and another” (“Coleridge,” CW, 10:122).

67 OL, CW, 18:258.

68 Ibid., 254.

69 Ibid., 247–50.

70 Ibid., 247.

71 Jeremy Waldron, considering the harm principle, notes that the “distress” that often comes with having others challenge our most deeply held belief does not constitute “harm” in an actionable sense. In fact, Waldron argues, this discomfort is one of the benefits of liberty. See “Mill and the Value of Moral Distress,” Political Studies 35 (1987): 410–23.

72 On this argument for social antagonism, see the wonderful article by Zivi Karen, “Cultivating Character: John Stuart Mill and the Subject of Rights,” American Journal of Political Science 50 (2006): 4961.

73 OL, CW, 18:245.

74 Much has recently been made of Mill's affinity for Socrates and the Greeks more generally. See especially Villa Dana, Socratic Citizenship (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001); Urbinati, Mill on Democracy; Devigne, Reforming Liberalism.

75 OL, CW, 18:245.

76 Ibid., 264. On this notion of character, see especially Richard Sinopoli's discussion of Mill's “interest-based liberalism” in Sinopoli Richard, “Thick-Skinned Liberalism: Redefining Civility,” American Political Science Review 89 (1995): 612–20.

77 OL, CW, 18:263–64.

78 Here, as elsewhere, Mill's tone is close to Nietzsche's. On the comparison, see Sinopoli, “Thick-Skinned Liberalism,” 614; Devigne, Reforming Liberalism, 182–85.

79 OL, CW, 18:271–72.

80 The connection between Mill and the “marketplace of ideas” has enjoyed an existence more colloquial than scholarly, per se. For a discussion of both its lineage and its shortcomings, see Gordon Jill, “John Stuart Mill and the ‘Marketplace of Ideas,’” Social Theory and Practice 23 (1997): 235–49.

81 I take Stanley Fish to mean precisely this window-shopping approach to ideas when he writes of “boutique multiculturalism” in “Boutique Multiculturalism, or Why Liberals Are Incapable of Thinking about Hate Speech,” Critical Inquiry 23 (1997): 378–95.

82 OL, CW, 18:268.

83 See n. 30 above; see also Cowling, Mill and Liberalism, and Duncan, Marx and Mill. Cowling, for example, writes that Mill can “be accused of more than a touch of something resembling moral totalitarianism. His emphasis on social cohesion and moral consensus at all periods of his life was of the greatest consequence” (xlviii). Mill's dream is “of creating a society which is morally homogeneous and intellectually healthy” (28).

84 For Mill's historical progressivism, see especially his writings on India (CW, 30) and his famous 1836 essay, “Civilization” (CW, 28).

85 Mill, To Thomas Carlyle, 18th May 1833, CW, 12:153–54.

86 OL, CW: 18:229, 235, 257, 258.

87 Mill, A System of Logic, CW, 8:681–84.

88 OL, CW, 18:267.

90 For the negative-liberty view, see Berlin, “John Stuart Mill and the Ends of Life”; Smith G. W., “J. S. Mill and Freedom,” in Conceptions of Liberty in Political Philosophy, ed. Pelczynski Z. and Gray J. (New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 1984). For the positive-liberty interpretation, see Capaldi, John Stuart Mill: A Biography. Nadia Urbinati and Wendy Donner have argued that there exists in Mill's thought a third liberty, that of “self-development.” See Wendy Donner, “Mill on Liberty of Self-Development,” in Critical Assessments, ed. G. W. Smith; Urbinati, Mill on Democracy, chap. 5.

91 OL, CW, 18:264. For a thorough treatment of Mill's thoughts on intersubjectivity, see Zivi, “Cultivating Character.”

92 Fish, Trouble with Principle, 129.

93 Ibid., 41.

94 As one anonymous reviewer notes, Mill's appreciation for antagonism extended beyond liberal—noncoercive—settings. As several scholars have recently pointed out in regards to Mill's tenure in the East India Company and his writings on India, he condoned decidedly illiberal treatment of non-Western peoples in the name of progress and civilizational development. Likewise, the reviewer notes, Mill's views on the American Civil War mirrored in important ways those of Marx; for both men, the war was a dynamic moment in the progress of ideas. That said, the Harm Principle is what makes Mill's theory of antagonism properly liberal by constraining participants and thereby providing a setting of noncoercion for productive conflict. See on Mill's imperial sympathies, Pitts Jennifer, A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005); Mehta Uday S., Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); but cf. Kohn Margaret and O'Neill Daniel I., “A Tale of Two Indias: Burke and Mill on Empire and Slavery in the West Indies,” Political Theory 34 (2006):192228; Boyd Richard, “Imperial Fathers and Favorite Sons: J. S. Mill, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Nineteenth-Century Justifications of Empire,” in Feminist Reinterpretations of Alexis de Tocqueville, ed. Botting Eileen Hunt and Locke Jill (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2007). On Mill and the Civil War, see “The Contest in America,” CW, 21; Compton John W., “The Emancipation of the American Mind: J. S. Mill on the Civil War,” The Review of Politics 70 (2008): 221–44.

95 On the limited space for passion in the discursive theories of Rawls and Habermas, see Krause Sharon R., Civil Passions: Moral Sentiment and Democratic Deliberation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 147.

96 On the strategy of “prescinding,” what Charles Larmore calls a “universal norm of rational dialogue,” see Larmore , Patterns of Moral Complexity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 5359. For the strategy of voluntary silence, see Ackerman Bruce, “Why Dialogue?Journal of Philosophy 86 (1989): 16.

97 Fish calls this “what's-sauce-for-the-goose-is-sauce-for-the-gander” liberalism. Such a view, he argues, “requires that you redescribe your enemy as someone just like you.” See Trouble With Principle, chap. 2. On the conditions of reciprocity and impartiality in democratic deliberation, see Gutmann Amy and Thompson Dennis, Democracy and Disagreement (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1996), 5293.

98 Shklar , Legalism: Law, Morals, and Political Trials (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1986), 5.

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