States of power
Whether we live under consensus or coercion, we cannot afford to be politically complacent
The world is now so interconnected that the failure of one political system could take the rest of us down with it’: clashes in the streets in Athens, in 2012, as the Greek parliament prepared to vote on an EU/IMF austerity deal. Photograph: Milos Bicanski/Getty
There is, or so we are told, increasing disillusion with politics and politicians. Whenever an election looms the media run vox pops with random citizens and the response is usually along the lines of “They’re all the same” or “I’m sick of the lot of them”. Some baldly state, “I don’t vote”, as though they are defending some great principle.
In fairness, politicians do not always help themselves. The great meltdown over parliamentary expenses in the UK inflicted terrible damage on the reputation of the political classes. But that is not the whole story.
A general contempt for politics and politicians was apparent long before then. The more comfortable and prosperous we become, the less enamoured we seem to be of our politicians and indeed the political systems which, in the developed world at least, have produced the unprecedented degree of stability that has enabled most of us to enjoy a far higher standard of living than our parents and grandparents.
So, do we need politicians? Does politics still matter? Or should we leave the management of society to technocrats, businessmen and the market? Prof David Runciman, in this lucid, elegant little book, argues that, like it or not, politics is as relevant today as it ever was.
He starts by comparing life in two very different countries – Denmark and Syria. “If you live in Syria today, you are stuck in a kind of hell . . . If you are lucky enough to live in Denmark, you are in what is by any historical standards a vision of heaven. . .”
The difference is not that Danes are better people than Syrians. Nor have Danes been blessed with greater natural advantages (on the contrary). “The difference between Denmark and Syria is politics. Politics helped make Denmark what it is. And politics helped make Syria what it is.”
Runciman addresses three questions, devoting a different chapter to each: first, how can the same word – politics – encompass such different societies as safe, boring Denmark and chaotic, miserable Syria? The answer, he says, is to be found in the balance between consensus and coercion.
Even in Denmark the state has the power to force people to behave in ways they don’t like – it has a police force, an army, a prison system, it can make them pay tax. But these are not the primary instruments by which the state maintains order.
In Denmark there is a high degree of consensus – the benefits of an ordered society. What’s more, unlike Syria, the people of Denmark can remove their government by peaceful means. “Societies in which violence is under an agreed system of political control are better places to live than those in which it is not.” Amen to that.
Second, Runciman considers the relationship between politics and technology and how they impact on each other. So many things, he says – the market, the internet, the environment – seem beyond the power of politicians to control in the face of a globalised technological revolution. And yet, he argues, the only people who can control – or at least mitigate – such powerful forces are the very politicians whom we affect to despise.