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12 January 2022updated 28 Jan 2022 5:23pm

How Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan shaped modern politics

David Runciman’s history reveals what the great philosopher can teach us about emancipation, coercion and the doubleness of political life.

By Jan-Werner Müller

Two observations recur in David Runciman’s recent book on the history of ideas: profound political thought is a product of political turmoil; and important theorists are fearless, both in crises and in going wherever the logic of their arguments leads them. Runciman’s book is composed of lectures he delivered for his Talking Politics podcast during the first lockdown in 2020. Covid is hardly as deadly a threat as the one that civil war posed to Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century, but we have been living through a critical moment that might concentrate fine minds and make them reconsider the basics of our collective life. While one wonders what Cambridge dons such as Runciman have to fear even in non-pandemic periods, the podcast format appears to have freed him from academic conventions: his tone is exceedingly casual; there are plenty of side-remarks usually absent from serious works of intellectual history: do we really need to know that the 19th-century liberal Benjamin Constant had a sadomasochistic relationship with Madame de Staël, his older, aristocratic lover, or that Max Weber’s marriage might have remained unconsummated?

These titbits can be fun or even thought-provoking (is it true that the greatest analytical philosophers remained unmarried?). But they also prove distracting from the serious argument Runciman advances: the state, he claims, is central to modern political experience, more so than democracy. Like all historical phenomena, the state is not inevitable. But its crucial role in organising political life is likely to last, as long as we are caught in a delicate situation of needing a Leviathan to protect us from all kinds of threats – and yet also require protection from the protector. During a pandemic, which, Runciman confesses, left him “deeply aware” of the state’s power, that all sounds depressingly true. But it’s not the whole truth.

If the state is the theme, Hobbes must be at the start; after all, his Leviathan (1651) proposed how mutually suspicious individuals escape the state of nature – and the permanent threat of violent conflict – by contracting with each other to establish a sovereign power that “overawes” but also protects them all. Yet, to his credit, and as one of many attempts throughout the book to make canonical thinkers we assume we know seem unfamiliar again, Runciman justifies the focus on Hobbes at length, and through two well-chosen contrasts: ancient Athens and Machiavelli. Greek democracy, in which citizens would be chosen by lot to make collectively binding decisions, had no institutions that we could recognise as amounting to a state; the collective of citizens as such was the polis, as opposed to a legal machinery covering a particular territory.

Writing in the 16th century, Machiavelli, a frequent contender for “first modern political thinker”, did indeed dare a radical break by rejecting a politics subject to Christian precepts. But he could still only conceive of a state as something like the property of the prince; when he wrote about mantenere lo stato, what he had in mind was not the perpetuation of an abstract public power, but the effective control of a person over a territory.

Less obviously, in the Florentine’s writings that praised a republic’s “free way of life”, Machiavelli would laud the endless conflict between grandi – the republic’s power-hungry elite – and a popolo who on occasion would become exasperated with being dominated and rise up in protest; struggles between groups, rather than being a cause of dangerous instability, actually ensured liberty. For all our (by now thoroughly clichéd) talk about clashes between “elites and the people” in a supposedly populist age, Machiavelli’s is a different world from the one we live in.

Hobbes’s Leviathan is the crucial innovation, Runciman believes, because it is based on genuine representation of everyone in an abstract legal entity, namely the “artificial person” of the state – a state that would not tolerate a proto-civil war between vainglorious grandi and the little people. Leviathan not only protects us in the way a benevolent prince might, but the state’s authority is the result of an act of collective authorisation by those subject to its coercive powers.

The logic articulated in what Runciman calls “the most rational book ever written about politics” is that government and people become interlocked. And the state is bound to have two faces: it is authorised to coerce citizens, but it also has to perform its task of protecting them. It deploys fear so as to release us from the fears experienced in a state of nature that is, in Hobbes’s haunting signature phrase, “nasty, brutish and short”.

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This is Runciman’s main point: modern politics is characterised by an ineliminable “doubleness”. The governed and the government are separate, but also inseparable; it is because of the state that they are stuck in a permanent “co-dependent relationship”.

[see also: George Orwell outside the whale]

For Runciman, that’s a good thing. After all, while all states need authority, they need not be authoritarian. The state is capable of evolving, and Runciman’s chapters, each devoted to a political thinker, from Hobbes to Francis Fukuyama, tell the story of how the basic Hobbesian template of modern politics was amended in light of further insights – and, sometimes, harsh criticisms. Mary Wollstonecraft – another example of intellectual fearlessness – and, two centuries or so later, Catharine MacKinnon, charged that the Leviathan had not really monopolised politics for the good of all. Instead, society was, and remains, characterised by relations of domination over women and what today we might simply call structural injustice.

The Swiss-French thinker Constant drew a seminal distinction between ancient liberty as public and heroic (and bound up with martial virtues) and modern freedom as exclusively private and commercial – what in recent political philosophy is called positive and negative liberty: the liberty to do something versus the liberty we have when we’re left alone to get on with our lives. Runciman reminds us that Constant did not simply praise the latter and declare the former unavailable for us moderns; rather, he taught that even modern liberty cannot be maintained if people entirely vacate politics: the protection of the right not to engage in politics still requires a willingness to do some politics.

Plenty of people willing to do politics – workers, women, racial minorities, the brutally colonised – were long excluded anyway. As Runciman points out, many of the figures he is writing about themselves wrote mainly to deny the masses a real role in collective decision-making. Still, the logic of the state – constituted through the act of Leviathan representing an otherwise disconnected and incoherent multitude – means that the people can never be completely left out: the crucial modern idea, Runciman claims, is not democracy, or liberalism, but representation – and democracy merely qualifies it. Runciman puts it bluntly: “What matters is that you should be represented, not how or by whom.”

Many thinkers would disagree: the question of truly equal representation cannot be divorced from the “how” and the “whom”. Runciman is sceptical of such figures mainly because they do not accept the necessary “doubleness” of modern political life. Marx, Engels, Gandhi and Frantz Fanon, he claims, failed to see that emancipation and coercion would always go together; one cannot be had without the other. Hannah Arendt and Gandhi were wrong to think that there is something mechanistic or cold about the state as such (Nietzsche’s coldest of all cold monsters); it is a noble but ultimately naive idea that politics entirely beyond the state could enable heroic forms of human action and collective solidarity.

Runciman writes about all these figures with empathy; it is an appealing aspect of the book that he liberally shares his enthusiasms: Leviathan is “an amazing piece of writing”, Wollstonecraft’s work can be “therapeutic” – but ultimately he is adamant that modern political life is simply double-sided, and hence irreducibly ambivalent. While he is not explicit, the warning is at least implicit: any attempt to replace the modern “both” with what he calls an “either-or” will probably lead to disaster.

One person who did spell it out – and who figures as another hero of sorts for Runciman – is the German sociologist Weber. In what is arguably the single most important lecture in the history of political thought – Weber’s “Politics as a Vocation”, delivered in the turmoil of post-First World War Munich – the self-consciously sober Weber subjected starry-eyed, radical left-wing students to withering criticism. He argued that an “ethics of conviction” – oblivious to the dark, violent side of politics and concerned merely with the purity of intentions – was at best ineffective, and at worst, a recipe for bloodshed. Instead, proper politicians needed to cultivate an “ethics of responsibility” that carefully calculates the consequences of political action. The latter was not an endorsement of the politician-as-cynical- operator. Weber’s whole point was that a true statesman – Abraham Lincoln being an example – would need firm convictions and superb intelligence to figure out the means (including violent means) necessary to achieve noble ends.

Weber’s teaching hints that the “doubleness” of modern political life is not about “co-dependency” in general. That thought becomes clearer as Runciman gets closer to the present and reconsiders Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis from the 1990s. He resists the temptation to which every pundit yielded when they sneered at the supposedly naive American neocon. Instead, Runciman carefully weighs the argument that Fukuyama’s form of “doubleness” – capitalism and liberal democracy as co-dependent and mutually reinforcing – might still have the edge over whatever is nowadays touted as “the China model”. Both promise representation of sorts, as well as economic growth benefiting all, but the Chinese version seeks to deliver collective respect (what Xi Jinping calls “national rejuvenation”), not individual freedom.

Runciman believes that only the elements of the Fukuyama model are mutually reinforcing: democracy provides a stable framework for market economies; as people prosper, they support their regime. What’s more, if people have a voice, they can tell rulers what’s wrong (or get rid of them altogether), thereby further adding to the model’s long-term success. The question is whether citizens today actually feel they have a voice. It is also not completely clear why Beijing propagandists could not claim that their package contains mutually reinforcing elements: prosperity presumably also fosters national pride, and pride in turn could lead individuals to recommit to Deng Xiaoping’s supposed precept from the mid-1980s that “to get rich is glorious”.

Here, then, it’s not so easy to dispense with arguments for the distinctive difference that democracy makes; the “what” and “how” of representation do matter, after all. There are obviously states that are not democratic, and there are forms of democracy that do without a state: the lesson from the pandemic is not just that people look to states when their lives are at risk; an alternative reading is that ordinary folks can take matters into their own hands. True, they cannot close borders or control the distribution of vaccines, but the formation of mutual aid associations is the kind of practice that bolsters those who are sceptical of the view that we’re simply stuck with a state and have to put up with its dark side.

Runciman’s self-conscious realism will not be to the liking of many on the left who suspect Leviathan of forming a monstrous, unholy trinity with exploitative capitalism and colonialism; they will also always reject the Hobbesian view according to which “men emerge from the earth like mushrooms” – without any mutual obligations – as opposed to recognising how we always depend on each other. Yet even they will benefit from a book that wears its learning lightly and does not pretend to hide personal predilections (Runciman confesses, for instance, that he was long reluctant to read Arendt because she had become so fashionable in the English-speaking academy). The central Hobbesian logic – including the primacy of representation in modern political life – is so forcefully rearticulated that critics, from self-declared radical democrats to anarchists believing in self-organisation, have their work cut out for them.

Runciman seeks to identify each thinker with a catchphrase: Hobbes’s is “nasty, brutish and short”; Tocqueville’s is “tyranny of the majority”; Fukuyama became his own catchphrase. Runciman’s is simply “Hobbes’s story is still our story”. And it’s a story that always has two sides.

Jan-Werner Müller is a professor of politics at Princeton University. His books include “Democracy Rules (Allen Lane)

[see also: How we lost the art of getting well]

Confronting Leviathan: A History of Ideas
David Runciman
Profile Books, 288pp, £20

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This article appears in the 12 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The age of economic rage