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23 August 2023

David Runciman’s armchair politics

In the recycled wisdom of his new book The Handover, the supremacy of the state is unquestioned and its inequities ignored.

By Oliver Eagleton

David Runciman has many titles: professor of politics at Cambridge, contributing editor at the London Review of Books, fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, 4th Viscount Runciman of Doxford. But he is best known as co-host of the popular podcast Talking Politics, which ran from 2016 until March of last year. There he reflected on current affairs in his reassuring Eton baritone: parsing the headlines, never taking too strident a position, throwing softball questions to his guests – from Thomas Piketty to Nick Timothy – and recycling conventional north London wisdom on all the hottest topics of the time: Brexit, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Covid. Meanwhile, in its companion History of Ideas series, the don synopsised the work of canonical thinkers through the ages, providing bite-sized summaries of Hobbes or Hayek that one could digest on one’s morning jog.

All this made for easy listening. It promised analysis that transcended the daily news cycle yet demanded no extra mental effort. Reading Runciman, however, is a somewhat different experience. On the page, his chatty, impressionistic style betrays a lack of intellectual rigour. His attempts to affect nuance (“On the one hand… On the other…”) come across as evasive. And his lordly tone – staying coolly detached when discussing war, inequality or climate breakdown – sounds less like critical distance and more like political quietism. Runciman’s journalistic writing can sometimes thrive off such insouciance, but when he tries to tackle loftier questions, the limits become obvious.

His new book, The Handover: How We Gave Control of Our Lives to Corporations, States and AIs, is as lofty as they come – seeking to explain the likely effects of technological development by recapping the entire trajectory of modernity. We can predict how humanity might respond to super-intelligent robots, Runciman argues, because our world is already populated by “artificial versions of ourselves”: namely states and corporations. They are artificial because they expand the scope of action far beyond the individual, using impersonal mechanisms to achieve their world-shaping objectives. A modern state is “built out of human beings” yet it has a life beyond them. It is capable of acting “in its own right”, autonomous from those it represents. A large company likewise exceeds the sum of its parts.

[See also: Colleen Hoover’s tales of love and trauma]

These strange beings have created astounding stability and plenitude. Their emergence in the modern age – which, Runciman tells us with the precision of an armchair historian, can be dated from “the 17th, 18th, or 19th century” – marked a leap forward in societal evolution. Previously, all forms of large-scale collective organisation were sui generis. Subsequently, they became replicable: corporate and state structures could be transplanted from one territory to the next. Everywhere they appeared, runaway growth followed – so long as the right balance was struck between a robust state and independent civil society. Where the former was too powerful, an absence of “freedom” or “incentives for enterprise” undermined development. Where the latter reigned supreme, “public order and good government” broke down.

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By mediating successfully between these two poles, Runciman suggests, liberalism and its forerunners made the modern world. Other ideologies including socialism and fascism failed to understand the state’s “inhuman” character – its refusal to merge with any “real people”, like the proletariat or the Führer. When such people tried to seize and administer the state, they treated it as a “project”, a means to an end. But for Runciman its true nature lies elsewhere: as a Leviathan that cannot be beholden to any group or individual. It stands aloof from the crowd, using its independence to impose order on their clashing impulses. The “grinding, self-sustaining qualities of established institutions”, and the sense of unbroken continuity they engender, are the conditions for social cohesion and historical progress. Good politicians understand this, seeing themselves as “representatives of an impersonal state”. Bad politicians believe they can humanise the levers of government by subordinating them to their own designs.

This means that the novelty of our present conjuncture, in which the judgement of machines threatens to supplant that of humans, has been greatly overstated. We have already performed a similar outsourcing operation – one that has allowed us to rise above the state of nature and exponentially improve our living conditions. All being well, new technological breakthroughs will accelerate such progress by automating tedious jobs while freeing people up to work in the growing education and healthcare sectors. They will enable us to make use of artificial agents without disenfranchising ordinary citizens, much like a functioning liberal state.

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“What stands in the way of this nice idea,” warns Runciman, “is politics, which remains rooted in the human dimension of the state, with all its presentist biases and divisions.” Poor decisions – in foreign relations, international trade, carbon mitigation – could yet impede the advantageous effects of technology. How best to avoid them? States could try to restrict the opportunities for human error by giving more political power to AIs. This would generate “better answers” to policy questions, but it would also involve “worse accountability” and “inhumanity”. Or they could expand the means of public participation in the democratic process, which would provide better accountability and more humanity, at the expense of “worse answers”.

There are more holes in Runciman’s historical narrative than on a mini-golf course. For starters, the proposition that pre-modern institutions were all unique, while modern ones are essentially the same, unravels upon contact with reality. Wasn’t the structure of feudalism emplaced across vast swathes of the globe? And isn’t the relation between, say, the current British and Bolivian states more than that of simple “replication”? To grasp the distinct composition of such polities, it is surely necessary to study the contingent processes that formed them: colonialism, conflict, revolution. Runciman has no interest in doing so. Instead, he sees each state as merely a different iteration of his liberal ideal-type.

Perhaps because of this lacuna, his account of the “handover” of his title is oddly upbeat. He writes that “we” – undifferentiated humanity – willingly ceded control over our lives to “an algorithm designed to produce tangible results: safer, healthier, happier human beings”. One is tempted to ask: are the millions of Indians who died as a result of British colonialism included in this “we”? Are the hundreds of thousands of West Africans subjugated by the French state and its corporate relays, or the scores of Native Americans massacred by European settlers?

Were Runciman to acknowledge this bloody record, he may be forced to qualify his admiration for the practice of liberal state-building. It is not the case, as he claims, that liberal states stood back from society while “project” states intervened in them. Nor is it true that the former represented the general interest while the latter channelled a particular one. The Leviathan was never as independent as Runciman makes it out to be. It operated in the service of a specific class: prising open investment markets and securing cheap labour through coercion. Not a handover, but a smash-and-grab.

[See also: Jordan Peterson’s rules for selective quotation]

The most glaring problems with Runciman’s argument, though, are not empirical but conceptual. In a book that is primarily about the “artificiality” of the state, this term is never properly defined. Throughout, it appears to be used interchangeably with “collective” or “supra-individual”. Groups are cast as unreal entities, in contrast to the reality of the isolated monad. The former “lack consciousness” while the latter alone possess it.

Runciman’s equation of the state with AI rests on this presumption that any type of rational, communal organisation is “inhuman”. By extension, radical attempts to make the state more responsive to people’s needs – through economic planning, for example – are bound to fail. The institution could perhaps set up more effective mechanisms for consulting with the masses (even if these invariably lead to “worse answers”), but the gulf between the two cannot be bridged. For if the state becomes human, it ceases to exist. “We do not get to choose between an imperfect state and a more perfect state. We get to choose between an imperfect state or no state at all.”

What does “no state at all” look like? Or rather, what happens when the state loses its autonomy from the people? For Runciman, the outcome is clear: mob rule. Crowds will “run riot” – they will “form and disperse naturally, much like groups of animals, or even inanimate natural phenomena, such as rainstorms and whirlwinds”. They will become subject to “rabble-rousing” and the “lure of popular leadership”, following their “sensations and emotions, often in place of rational thoughts”. Such groups “don’t care about the truth”; they are content with “making their own reality” through force and violence. They are, the viscount intones, “the worst version of ourselves”.

This is why “behind any instance of the wisdom of crowds there still needs to be the artificial agency of the state, which is required to keep things in check”. Democracy must be “carefully managed. Otherwise you might end up with what is sometimes called the madness of crowds.” To illustrate this point, Runciman cites the invasion of Iraq. The public opposed it, refusing to believe the story that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. On that factual point they turned out to be correct. Yet “the wider consequences of British involvement in Iraq” cannot “easily be reduced to the sorts of questions that tap into the wisdom of crowds”. Such momentous decisions are presumably better left to the Leviathan and its most capable representatives. (Runciman has written elsewhere that the war “may ultimately prove to have been justified”.)

[See also: Milan Kundera’s sexual revolutions]

In this sense, The Handover’s description of an “artificial” and “autonomous” state is not a historical reality but a political aspiration. Runciman’s argument implies that such decision-making bodies must remain out of reach for the unthinking masses, lest they gain the ability to block such necessary actions as regime change in the Middle East. Though the book is marketed as a tract on the future of AI, its main aim is to defend this venerable tradition of liberal thought, in which people learn to accept their alienation from the centres of power – content in the knowledge that it is for their own good.

Oliver Eagleton is an editor for the New Left Review and author of “The Starmer Project: A Journey to the Right” (Verso)

The Handover: How We Gave Control of Our Lives to Corporations, States and AIs
David Runciman
Profile, 336pp, £20

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This article appears in the 23 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Britain’s Exclusive Sect