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11 April 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 3:26pm

Leadership should be defined by consensus not coercion in a time of crisis

Thinkers through the ages largely agree that successful politics is mostly about cooperation. 

By Christopher Finlay

On 23 March, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed “lockdown” measures across the UK in response to the spread of coronavirus. In addition to social distancing, all citizens were obliged to remain at home for almost all purposes, save for work, purchasing basic supplies, getting medical assistance and exercise. 

To underline the seriousness with which the government was taking the matter, Johnson warned: “If you don’t follow the rules, the police will have the powers to enforce them, including through fines and dispersing gatherings.” The following day, Michael Gove added that the police had a range of means to enforce these new rules including fixed-penalty notices, and that “stronger measures” could be introduced.

Words like “enforcement”, “powers” and “strong measures” conjure up an image of politics in which coercion plays a much more prominent role than the citizens of liberal democracies such as the UK are used to. This phenomenon is reinforced when speakers use such language while invoking the experience of wartime Britain. As Johnson put it: “In this fight we can be in no doubt that each and every one of us is directly enlisted.”

But some commentators argue the present crisis shows coercion has always been a central part of political reality and the operation of the state. Only a liberal trapped under the spell of European Enlightenment myths could maintain the delusion that force had been banished from the political life of democracies.

David Runciman, for example, claims that the corona crisis throws into relief “the primary fact that underpins political existence”, which is “that some people get to tell others what to do”. This echoes the dictum attributed to Lenin that politics is always a question of “Who? Whom?” Who will rule and whom will be ruled? But it is to the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes that Runciman turns for the truth behind this idea. 

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According to Hobbes’ argument in Leviathan (1651), the human condition is dominated by the almost inescapable fear of violent death. In a “natural condition”, one where we hadn’t yet come up with the idea of sovereign government, every person would live in constant fear of everyone else. Our bodily needs, our quickness to take offence, and even our diffidence would lead to a near-constant condition of war – a “war of all against all” – in which life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

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Hobbes thought there was only one way out of this war, and he believed that identifying it teaches us something crucial about the nature of the state. If everyone agreed with everyone else to lay down their natural right to fend for themselves and left one person with full authority to enforce peace, then we might escape the horrors of the natural condition and enjoy the benefits of peace. And in Hobbes’ view, it is precisely through this transfer of authority that we get a sovereign state.

This seems to confirm Runciman’s claim that coercion is an inescapable political fact that involves rulers using their power to maintain order among the ruled. “The ultimate judgements,” Runciman writes, “are about how to use coercive power.” Even in democracies, there is a fundamental political trade-off between “personal liberty and collective choice”. Briefly, the Hobbesian sovereign wields a sword in order to keep the peace.

But there’s another side to Hobbes’ thought: his acute awareness of the fragility concealed behind the appearance of a strong state. The state’s ability to coerce some subjects depends on being empowered to do so by a much larger number of other citizens who recognise the government and believe in its right to rule. In fact, Hobbes wrote Leviathan to warn people that a population that forgets how much its safety depends on an effective state and fails to back the government of the day runs the risk of falling into civil war, as Britain did during the 1640s. 

Hobbes’ attempt to convince English citizens to obey overshadows the premise of Leviathan as a book: that the power of the state depends heavily on buy-in from the citizen. Yet in the mid-20th century, Hannah Arendt thought it was vital to remind people of this fact. And in some ways, she is the better guide to the current crisis because she recognised that successful politics consists of cooperation and consensus-building, and that true power is created through verbal persuasion, not coercion.

Unlike Hobbes, who focuses on natural forces that he believes drive individuals apart, Arendt thinks political power stems from a human tendency to congregate. What makes the human individual “a political being” is their unique ability to engage in unforced, spontaneous and unpredictable action. This “enables him to get together with his peers, to act in concert, and to reach out for goals and enterprises that would never enter his mind, let alone the desires of his heart, had he not been given this gift – to embark on something new”

In Arendt’s philosophical vocabulary, “power” refers to the institutions people create when they come together and actively invest in common projects. Political power therefore isn’t about top-down coercion, but about active popular support: “When we say of somebody that he is ‘in power’,” she writes, “we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name.” In fact, Arendt believed that the more a government rules by force, the more it erodes its underlying power by alienating those who supported it. It is in this sense that Arendt thinks power and violence are opposites.  

Arendt believed the purest manifestation of bottom-up political power appeared in modern revolutions: in the town-hall meetings of 18th-century Americans and in the workers’ councils at the beginning of the Russian Revolution. These are exceptional cases, but a slightly more mundane example took place in the UK in early March. When sports bodies, universities and other organisations began cancelling in-person events ahead of any government ban, they demonstrated the public’s willingness to come together and be led by scientific expertise and pragmatic common sense.  

Given that political power ultimately resides in the collective actions of a given population, the UK government’s response to the corona crisis should first and foremost involve cultivating and maintaining the sort of active buy-in that Arendt identifies. On Arendt’s view, the power that comes from active support provides “stability in the ocean of future uncertainty where the unpredictable may break in from all sides.” In short, instead of focusing on coercion and issuing wholesale threats of “stronger measures”, the government must convince as many people as possible to empower it through their voluntary support. 

Accordingly, the government should build on the spontaneous action seen in early March by consolidating and widening consensus about the best measures to implement. To do this it must communicate effectively, and establish and maintain its credentials as an authoritative source of reliable guidance and instruction. And when faced with an epidemic, effective leadership relies on the authority that comes from showing that the government’s policies are based on the best available scientific expertise. 

The foregrounding of coercion by advocates of Hobbesian political thought distracts from some essential realities in the background of political power. But these realities are actually captured by the famous frontispiece to Leviathan: we see the sovereign state as a giant man whose arm wields the sword of government. But this man is artificial: his body built from the combined bodies of members of the public. The sword does not threaten the citizens themselves. Instead, it hangs over a city whose streets are almost entirely empty. They are empty because, like now, the vast majority of citizens have willingly abandoned those open spaces in order to empower their collective institutions to do the work of protecting them.

Christopher Finlay is professor of political theory at Durham University. He is the author of Terrorism and the Right to Resist and Is Just War Possible?.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, professor of philosophy at the Higher School of Economics. He tweets @ajwendland.