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The origins of modern political thinking

A review of Confronting Leviathan: A History of Ideas . By: David Runciman. Publisher: Profile Books, London, 2021.

February 15, 2022 - Simona Merkinaite - Books and ReviewsIssue 1-2 2022Magazine

Can history help us make sense of what is happening in the world today? Discussion about history often centres around questions of its repetition. This is especially true regarding the lessons we can extract from the autocratic and totalitarian turn of the 20th century. While looking at history, we rarely ask how much of our thinking about politics is actually historical in nature. Understanding how we think about politics is paramount in understanding the predicaments of our times. Yet, such discussion surrounding the history of ideas generally takes place inside philosophy and humanities departments and does not enjoy as much attention in wider society.  This problem is perhaps what makes David Runciman’s new book Confronting Leviathan: A History of Ideas so interesting, as it makes ideas accessible, relative and urgent.

The author presents his ideas though the perspective of a man preoccupied not with  intellectual pursuits but attempts to understand and navigate the world in which we live. Following the path of the history of ideas, the author invites us to see familiarity in things we think are new. He also attempts to uproot some of our older familiarities and deconstruct various deeply held convictions and prejudices.

In search of the origin of power

The book, based on the History of Ideas podcast series by Talking Politics, explores some of the most important modern thinkers. This includes Thomas Hobbes, Benjamin Constant, Alexis de Tocqueville, Karl Marx, Max Weber, Friedrich Hayek, Hannah Arendt, and others. The 12 essays are compiled in a way that helps promote the diversity of canon within modern political thought. For example, there are at least several women among these figures. Along with Arendt, we find Mary Wollstonecraft and Catharine MacKinnon. Simultaneously, authors with non-western heritage are also present, such as Mahatma Gandhi, Frantz Fanon and Francis Fukuyama.

Runciman begins the story of modern man with Thomas Hobbes. Why not with someone else, say Machiavelli? After all, it was the Italian diplomat and philosopher who popularised the idea that politics is no holy business, but a game of thrones. The Prince represents the modern politician – cunning, plotting, willing to do whatever it takes. This is what makes Machiavelli’s writing feel relevant and modern. The division of power among different branches of governance in a modern state, the multiplication of sources of power, and tools of oversight including elections are ultimately meant to keep the corrupt princes’ power in check.

As Runciman argues, the key shift comes in the understanding of the origins of power. Machiavelli still thought that the origins of power lie either with republican rule or principalities. This means that politics is a choice of whether one person or many may rule over us. Hobbes, in contrast, foresaw the key shift from pre-modern to modern political man through the obliteration of this choice. Life outside the state, as Hobbes defines it, is “nasty, brutish and short”. Humans long for stability and safety, hence make the ultimate, yet unavoidable compromise – to give up our absolute freedom and consent to rules of conduct. That is how the state, or the Leviathan, ultimately comes into being.

The power of the state depends on our consent and yet this is an authority we cannot claim or control. For example, the state’s power lies in its seemingly legitimate claim to decide questions of life and death, something that no citizen of the state can possess. Think about our experience of the current COVID-19 pandemic. Our lives are now subject to an almost mechanical process of counting infections and making projections, as well as modelling the possible movements of people inside their own homes. There is something artificial to it. Yet, it also possesses a mystical power that is the only source of human salvation – the possibility of avoiding chaos, misery, suffering and death. The government’s decisions have the power only as long as a majority of the citizens will freely consent and obey its guidelines.

It goes to show, that we are in an entanglement with the state that is always about something more than our consent. We create the state’s power yet ultimately lose control over it. The paramount example of this reality in action is elections. We gain the ultimate control over those who are in power, and yet, once they take their oath, power is once again out of our control. Despite this, politicians still need to honour their mandate. As a result, power in a modern state cannot be claimed by either the people or the government. Runciman argues that the predicament of the modern political man is this “doubleness”. He structures the following essays around this issue, exploring and exposing it as a contradiction between freedom and control, power and violence, and equality and disparity among various classes, sexes and cultures/civilisations.

The conundrum of the modern free man

The book’s more fascinating essays tell the story of modern man as one of reconciliation with this doubleness. As Marx, MacKinnon and Fannon discuss, the idea of freedom often coexists with persistent forms of class, economic, sexual and colonial oppression and exploitation. Runciman focuses on exposing the deeper associated tensions between egotistical men, who enjoy individual freedom, and humans searching for meaning. This again exposes the doubleness of our political life, which is directly discussed in an essay by Benjamin Constant. In his 1819 work, titled “The liberty of ancients compared with that of moderns”, Constant compares the modern free man to the ancient notion of freedom. The Greek and Roman understanding of freedom was associated with public life and the wider “polis”. Ancient freedom begins with interaction with others, as well as an ability to build a common world through speech and action. The “moderns” stand in radical contrast to this ancient idea and practice of freedom. Overall, modern freedom is much more internalised, as it is something enjoyed individually and in private away from politics. Ultimately, the free men are the trading, consuming, mobile men.

We separate ourselves from pre-modern political men through our universal, natural rights. When pressed to the limit, this form of individualised freedom also creates opportunities for the abuse of power. Too few people in a democratic state invest enough time and effort into political life. This is because we see our ultimate self-fulfilment, sense of self and happiness as lying outside the political domain. But that is not all. Freedom is the paramount political idea that modern men take special pride in. This is why, according to Tocqueville, the key division in modern politics is between different forms of governance, which he saw as a showdown between the Russian Empire and revolutionary America.

Yet, as Constant pointed out, we often feel inadequate. As the mass movements of the 20th century show, we are easily persuaded that there is something wrong with us, that our freedom is a bit flat and hollow in comparison to ancient freedom. This is how we become easily drawn into different mass movements, lured by the promise of a meaningful collective experience. Here once again is that doubleness – we separate ourselves from pre-modern man through individual freedom. At the same time, we feel this freedom to trade and consume is not worth the blood and sacrifice that the fight for freedom demands. Hence some thinkers like Arendt, who, having lived through the worst of the 20th century, cautioned us against reducing  liberty to any single thing or idea. As soon as we are allowed to be reduced to a single thing and lose the diverse horizons of freedom (to speak and to act with others), we become easy prey for control and manipulation.

There is, indeed, no simple resolution to this doubleness. The story of the horrors of the last century speak to the need for an individual who will stand out and not follow the rules. However, every modern state relies on a certain level of obedience to rules and procedures. Whilst an increasingly complex bureaucracy did contribute to hellish systems of mass killings, imprisonment and torture, it also limits human error and hubris in state affairs. By trying to avoid the increasing bureaucracy of politics we fall into a different extreme by overpoliticising every aspect of our life. The political process can be paralysed by emotions and polarisation, as they encourage a situation in which expertise and wisdom become completely disposable. The contradictions of this individualised freedom once again stood out sharply during the pandemic. For instance, the individual freedom to not get vaccinated leads to restrictions on your freedom to assemble, get an education or care for relatives.

Political men

This doubleness runs through different aspects of political life and a true politician is someone who is willing and able to reconcile themselves with it. We want leaders with vision and ideas, as well as a strong individual character. Contrasting visions and ideas steer the political process, and modern, large states ensure the process of representation. Naturally, people who hold different values and ideological positions feel they should have a place in public political life.

Yet, if politics becomes a battleground among different ideological positions, we risk ending up with political discourse that is radically out of touch with reality. You cannot simply take an idea and apply it to whatever new phenomena you come across without thinking of its implications. These politics of ideas also help political figures evade personal responsibility. As Weber suggested right after the First World War in Politics as a Vocation, politics is by no means the business of saints. A true politician is subsequently someone who holds beliefs and convictions, but also realises that power bears real responsibility, often with lives at stake. To be a true politician, according to Weber, you must reconcile yourself with the doubleness of the ethics of conviction and responsibility. A political leader not only promotes a certain vision but realises the burden of governance.

This is why the professional politician is not necessarily someone who is trained in governance, nor a knowledgeable scientist, expert or academic. The vocation implies character, as well as a willingness to undertake and live with this doubleness and possibly thrive under difficult conditions. In contrast, someone who uses sovereign power to transform the world regardless of any associated misery, destruction or violence is as bad a politician as someone who is so burdened by their conscience that they paralyse the state’s decision-making process. By accepting the doubleness of politics, we are able to consider the consequences of our own actions whilst still having enough conviction to face up to these decisions if they go wrong.

While the essays themselves present only a fraction of modern thought, this somewhat eclectic collection exposes the burden of modern man regarding this doubleness. We now enjoy a level of freedom unprecedented in human history. This warrants a political power that cannot be claimed by those who rule us. At the same time, this extensive private, individual freedom can have a depoliticising effect, such as neglected responsibility for the world we share. The modern doubting and wondering mind led to the triumph of science. At the same time, there are radically different ways of how we use this science: to build all descructive bombs at the same time scientific inovation is our only chance to preserve and save the plannet. 

Accepting this doubleness can guard us against extremes. The tale of the modern man is a tale of the revolution of freedom. At the same time, it is a story of new forms of oppression or segregation (as in the case of the United States). It is not one or the other, it is both. Indeed, it is more difficult to tell ourselves this story because the origins of our problems are much harder to comprehend. When we identify the origins of inequality, oppression, totalitarianism and egoism with modernity, we are opening the way for the rejection of science, facts, universal natural freedoms and dignity. What this book offers is a reflection about political life through this doubleness. It allows us to look at the complexity of political life and avoid a one-sided understanding that can ultimately lead to the radicalisation of political thinking.

Simona Merkinaitė is a chief project officer with the East European Studies Centre in Vilnius. She is also completing a PhD focusing on Hannah Arendt at Vilnius University.

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