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

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

Sat, Jul 19, 2014, 01:00


Book Title:


David Runciman


Guideline Price:

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.

What’s more, many of the great technological advances of recent decades would not have come to pass had they merely depended on a benign combination of entrepreneurial spirit and market forces. Spending by the state – on education, infrastructure and military hardware – played a large part in making possible the digital revolution.

Above all, markets cannot always correct their own failure. We saw that six years ago when the excesses of the bankers brought the world financial system to the edge of ruin. For all their bravado about light-touch deregulation and reducing political interference in business, when push came to shove the bankers and businessmen did not hesitate to throw themselves on the mercy of the politicians.

Who can forget former British chancellor Alastair Darling’s riveting account of the Saturday morning in December 2007 that Sir Fred Goodwin, chief executive of the mighty Royal Bank of Scotland, appeared on his doorstep in Edinburgh, clutching a gift-wrapped panettone? Sir Fred had come to plead for state intervention to save his bank. For all their arrogance and hubris, when the chips were down the bankers knew where real power lay.

In a chapter headed Justice, Runciman explores the limits of political power. Why, he asks, if politics is what makes a difference, do we tolerate such vast discrepancies between the world’s most successful states and its least successful ones?

His answer – citing political philosophers Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum – is the expansion of liberal democracy via education, healthcare and the empowerment of women. All things that are happening on a small scale, but appear hopelessly impractical on a bigger one. There are no shortcuts. As we have seen, liberal democracy cannot be imposed by force – witness recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In an epilogue arrestingly entitled Catastrophe, Runciman considers the factors which might blast us out of our complacency. There are several obvious possibilities: the implosion of China, another financial crash in the US, climate change leading to rising sea levels, famine and mass migration. Can we cope with these or is our political system destined to go the way of those in ancient civilisations? Will tourists one day wander through the ruins of Washington and Westminster as they do through the Parthenon and the Roman Forum?

On balance, Runciman thinks not.

First, because we are richer, healthier, more resourceful and (he alleges) smarter that previous generations. Second, because democracy, unlike such failed political systems as communism, is inherently adaptable.

But, and this is quite a large but, there is no scope for complacency. The world is now so interconnected that the failure of one political system – the US or China are the prime candidates – could take the rest of us down with it.

Runciman ends with a wake up call: “We need to recognise the risk posed by global interconnectivity, by the time lags between our present actions and their long-term consequences, and by our growing complacency about what politics can achieve.”