The Politics of Fear
Confronting Leviathan: A History of Ideas,
by David Runciman, Profile Books, 2021, 288 pp., £20.00
Portrait of Thomas Hobbes, oil on canvas, c. 1669, John Michael Wright,
The National Portrait Gallery
During the great lockdown of early 2020, David Runciman, Professor of Politics at Cambridge University, found that he had time on his hands, plus a theme to hand. Throughout the world, hundreds of millions of people were being coerced for their own safety: compelled to sacrifice freedoms in order to save lives. Not since war-time had there been such an arrogation of power by Western states, thus bringing their relationship with their citizens into sharp focus. Although modern heads of government may not know much Latin, they almost all seem to believe in 'salus populi suprema lex'. The ensuing laws were imposed not only with little discussion, but often with outrage against those who sought to question them: 'don't you know there's a pandemic on?' All this stimulated Professor Runciman to revisit some earlier debates, in lively podcasts which became this book.
It is easy to be sceptical about politics as an academic subject, especially when it pushes its pretensions further and calls itself 'political science'. That is surely an oxymoron. 'Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.' The troubles of our proud and angry dust, as manifested in a public sphere regularly menaced by chaos, cannot be reduced to a science, any more than politics itself can be abstracted from its historical context. Sir John Seeley, sometime Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, is said to have stated that 'History is past politics and politics present history'. That conclusion rests on a sound bottom of common sense.
In the view of Nigel Lawson, one of the most economically literate Chancellors of all time, the same is true of economics. Instead of trying to create theories out of crooked timber, people should study economic history: what actually happened. Scepticism has been encouraged by experience. No Prime Minister was more economically equipped than Harold Wilson. He promised to use his knowledge to upgrade the quality of government in Britain. He delivered an opportunistic shambles. 'A week is a long time in politics,' he told us. It was certainly long enough for him to make up everything as he went along. Wilson was an alumnus of the Oxford PPE faculty. That has not discouraged those that who argue that in the public interest, it should be closed down.
It must also be remembered that the academic discipline of politics was virtually invented in the LSE. That institution is not all bad. How could it be, when its luminaries include Hayek, Oakeshott and Popper? But it has a reputation for Leftism, dating from the era when Graham Wallas, Harold Laski and other members of the Fabian society believed that the purpose of political studies was to steer the world in the direction of socialism. In low-grade politics departments around the country, as well as capitulating to wokery, humourless Fabian epigoni are still preaching social salvation to bemused and bewildered audiences.
This is not true of David Runciman. Although he may be a man of the moderate Left, he is anything but a humourless doctrinaire. He is not afraid of the big questions, and he does not pretend that he has all the answers.
As one might expect from the title, the book starts and ends with Hobbes, and much of the text takes the form of replies to Hobbes's arguments. This makes sense, for he asked the biggest question of all. How can we construct a state to enable men live together in peace? Hobbes could never be abstracted from the history of his time. He was born in 1588, the year of the Armada. Later, he claimed that his mother went into labour when she heard that the Spanish fleet was sailing up the Channel. and that she gave birth to twins: him, and fear. A turbulent beginning was followed by a long life on the fringes of violence. The English Reformation could also be described as a revolution, which went on intermittently until the early Eighteenth Century, and for much longer in Scotland. In Ireland, it is not yet over.
Throughout Hobbes's 91 years, it was a regular source of political instability. On the continent of Europe, in another confessional conflict, the Dutch had been fighting the Spaniards for decades. After a brief cessation, that contest became part of the Thirty Years War, a brutal, ravaging assault on humanity which would have encouraged any wise Englishman to pay thanks for divine providence in the form of the English Channel. It was usually a good moat.
Hobbes was very much a wise Englishman, entirely immune from martial ardour. When the English Civil War broke out, he took refuge in Paris. Every week would have brought him fresh news of bloodshed in apparently endless conflicts. Some of Hobbes's contemporaries accused him of atheism, a charge which he made no strenuous efforts to rebut. Even so, had he found himself in a church when the clergyman was saying 'give peace in our time, o Lord' he might had added a sotto voce Halleluiah. The experiences of his entire life led him to value peace and its concomitant, political order.
David Runciman is fascinated by Hobbes. He points out a delicious contrast. This man, who happily described himself as twinned with fear, a leitmotif in his personal life, was also intellectually fearless, especially in Leviathan: 'an amazing piece of writing...inspired both by Euclidean geometry and biblical imagery.' Hobbes wrote as well, and as lucidly, as the development of English prose permitted in the mid-Seventeenth Century.' Two hundred years later, he might have emulated Macaulay's brisk light infantry pace. Hobbes is frequently misunderstood. There are no noble savages for him. His unsentimental description of pre-social human life as 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short' and his construction of Leviathan as a means of preventing 'bellum omnium contra omnes' have led to a misconception. He is assumed to be a natural authoritarian. Not so: whether or not he was a closet atheist, Hobbes was certainly a closet liberal. He believed that only a strong sovereign - Leviathan - could save man from himself and thus permit freedom. Anticipating Isaiah Berlin by three centuries, he drew an implicit distinction between positive and negative concepts of liberty, and came down heavily in favour of negativity. He wanted to be as free as possible from constraint and had no interest in constraining others. Under the rule of Leviathan, politics would have a very limited role.
The portrait by John Michael Wright in the National Portrait Gallery encourages one to find the mind's construction in the face. In it, Hobbes comes across as a wise and deep character, a rationalist with a subtle sense of humour and an acute capacity for observation. There is a sense that this man knew how to enjoy life, and wanted others to have the same privilege. This supposed apologist for dictatorship could be classified as an accidental man. A mixture of fictional and actual characters - Boethius, Erasmus, Hamlet, Prince Andrei and Turgenev are examples - these are men who aspire to a level of civilisation that circumstances prevent them from achieving. 'The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right.'
Hence Leviathan, Hobbes's attempt to repair the joint and amend the time. Men agree to submit themselves to an all-powerful ruler in a social contract, exchanging anarchy for good government. Contemporary Singapore is a good example of a Hobbesian state. But there is an obvious problem. Hobbes did not believe in original sin, but he did have faith in science and in reason. He also assumed that Seventeenth Century communications would limit the power of central government to interfere with its subjects. So he was an optimist as well as a liberal. Was the optimism justified?
David Runciman does not regard Hobbes as a liberal and nor does Benjamin Constant. There is clearly a danger of anachronism when one applies a modern political term to an earlier epoch: the clocks striking in Caesar's Rome. But Hobbes was a liberal by temperament and certainly by the standards of the Seventeenth Century. Benjamin Constant, an unalloyed liberal, devoted a lot of thought to Hobbes but could not share either his enthusiasm for Leviathan or his disregard for politics. Constant too had lived through bloody times: the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. He had observed the power of the modern state and had no faith in the moderating influence of science and reason any more than in the beneficence of Leviathan. Negative freedom was not enough. Although It is not clear who actually wrote that; 'The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing', Constant would have agreed. If you want to be free, you cannot leave politics to Leviathan. As Runciman puts it, for Constant: 'That is the paradox of modern life. If you genuinely don't want to take part in politics, you need to take part in politics to protect your right not to take part in politics.'
That brings our author to Tocqueville. No-one has so brilliantly harnessed political philosophy to hustings-level politics as he did in Democracy in America. Tocqueville too knew that a modern state could descend into barbarism. He had lost several relatives during the Jacobin Terror. He too sought to combine liberty and order, awhile taking account of the new Leviathan that would increasingly dominate politics: democracy. There was also a second Leviathan-like state: the United States, which had also gone further in the direction of democracy than any other nation. Tocqueville foresaw an epoch of American dominance, so he thought that he had better cross the Atlantic to study this new phenomenon. At first, he was impressed, but that gave way to complexity and ambivalence. Had he visited America in the age of the Virginian gentlemen - Jefferson, Madison and Monroe - he might have been easier in his mind. But by the time he arrived, General Jackson and his camp followers had arrived from the frontier, bringing spittoons to the White House. Tocqueville had no instinctive respect for a vulgar democracy which elected raucous leaders.
There was a paradox at the heart of Tocqueville's assessment of America. He was worried about the dangers of majority tyranny. He also feared that the triumph of populist politics could induce conformity and thus suppress the creative excitement which was essential to America's success. He was equally aware of the tensions arising from the American original sin, slavery. which were creating instability. He died before the Civil War. It would have horrified him, but not surprised him. So he did not believe that vox populi was necessarily and at all times vox dei, but he did acknowledge the primacy of democracy. 'To wish to stop democracy would ...appear to be a struggle against God himself.' He could be said to have anticipated Churchill: 'Democracy is the worst form of government - apart from all the others.'
Other chapters in this book broaden the agenda. Max Weber emerges as a confused melange of Hobbesianism and Twentieth Century liberalism, trying to make sense of German politics after 1918. He did not live long enough to be convincing. There is an interesting account of Mary Wollstonecraft and a powerful reading of Hannah Arendt, an agonistic liberal, in Isaiah Berlin's phrase. We move beyond Europe with Gandhi and Franz Fanon and beyond liberalism with Marx and Engels. Hayek, a 24 carat liberal rather than an agonistic one, is equally sceptical about Leviathan and democracy. He feared the encroachment of the modern state.
The great Salisbury wrote that enfranchising the poor would be like leaving the cat in charge of the cream jug. Hayek would have agreed. Unscrupulous demagogues would reduce economic life to confiscatory taxation and a debauched currency: The Road to Serfdom, to quote his most famous title.
David Runciman 's final chapter is devoted to Francis Fukuyama, who has been much misunderstood because of another famous title. In 'The End of History' Fukuyama was not arguing that history would come to an end, merely that the apparent triumph of liberal democracy would create a new set of problems. In 1848, it was a case of la France s'ennuie. Now it could be l'humanite s'ennuie.
After more than two millennia of experiments. regularly ending in bloodshed, it could be argued that men have learned how to live in society. The rule of law, some form of democracy, free markets plus, in especially favoured nations, a monarchy: that will provide a perfect framework for freedom and prosperity. It would have been enough for Hobbes, Constant and Tocqueville. It is not enough to assuage the discontents of the human condition. In many cases, that appears to require some form of religion: these days, usually a secular religion. There are benign forms, such as football, and less benign ones: wokery and Extinction Rebellion. They are disruptive, which would have been anathema to Hobbes. But there seems no end to the disruption.
When Francis Fukuyama published his book, the West's predominance seemed assured, despite internal discontents. Now, nothing is assured. If Tocqueville could see the products of modern democracy, he might be less certain that it walked with divinity. History is not done with mankind yet.
Nor is political philosophy. David Runciman has produced a lively and stimulating book which anyone interested in such questions will enjoy. Peter Utley, whom the late Frank Johnson described as an itinerant jobbing Tory philosopher and who ought to be better known, wrote that political philosophy is action recollected in tranquility. That is a charming description, even if the tranquility is more elusive than either Peter or Thomas Hobbes would have wished.
The beheading of Charles I outside the Banqueting Hall of Whitehall, engraving with etching
Portrait of Benjamin Constant, oil on canvas, 1820, Hercule de Roche
Hannah Arendt, c.1963, Jewish Chronicle Archive/Heritage-Images via Britannica
Background painting is The Education of the Children of Clovis, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1861