London: Profile Books, 2014
David Runciman, a Cambridge University professor of politics, is perhaps best known to the general public for his podcast Talking Politics, which offers a combination of penetrating near real time insights and deeper explorations of political issues which are worthy of greater consideration. It was while listening to one episode of this while walking to Central Eastville in Bangkok that I popped into the bookshop there and saw this one, which it seemed churlish to ignore. Politics is part of a series entitled Ideas in Profile, which has been accompanied by volumes on Art in History, The Ancient World, Geography and so forth. There have been several series such as this published in recent years, which offer consideration of important issues at a length which is not daunting (this one weighs in at 166 pages with plenty of white space and illustrations along the way) but offers greater space than is practical for popular media or the internet, where there are so many distractions to disrupt concentration over an extended period of time. Presumably this has been identified as an opportunity for publishers and a need for the public (it is notable that long-from journalism is also enjoying a resurgence of interest).
Runciman organizes the books into three main chapters with a brief, framing introductory section and an equally short conclusion. He uses the introduction to indicate the importance of politics to everyday life by comparing conditions in Syria and Denmark. Syria, as is well-known, was a fairly grim place to live for most people when the book was written and seems likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future. Denmark, on the other hand, is the land of Borgen, where political conflict is expressed through parliamentary debates, newspaper opinion pieces and backroom deals. Yet Denmark has a history of violence and conflict through many periods of history which was the equivalent of the worst in the world, while Syria has been at the very heart of civilisation and progressive discourse for the Mediterranean world. Runciman argues that: “The difference between Denmark and Syria is politics. Politics has helped make Denmark what it is. And politics has helped make Syria what it is (p.4).” The argument is not that politics causes all of these problems or, conversely, is responsible for all the good things that happen in different societies. Politics is important but not so central as this. Instead, it is the use of politics by the state and its institutions that has enabled the Danish society to move from violence to peace. The opposite has occurred in Syria. Consequently, it is important to understand how the relevant institutions can be used in positive ways and what must be done to protect them – the book was written before the advent of Trump and other political leaders with an apparently ambivalent attitude towards democracy to the extent that they are willing to attack and undermine those institutions which have been so instrumental in delivering peace and prosperity to so many people.
The first of the three main chapters concerns violence, the monopoly of the legitimate use of which is often considered to be the central part of the definition of a state. This allows him to introduce his hero Hobbes, who is often invoked during the podcasts and in Runciman’s other work. He points out the misrepresentation of Hobbes that has become so prevalent (i.e. the nasty, brutish and short characterisation of life) by demonstrating that this chaos only exists when the state is absent or has broken down. It is constituted when there exists a relationship between the sovereign, who speaks for the people on their behalf (and not for personal benefit) and the people acknowledge that their being spoken for in this way is legitimate: “… a state is what comes into existence when sovereign and subjects are locked up together in a relationship of representation (p.30).” This marks one of the transitions from the pre-modern to the modern world, in which the use of violence is possible but subject to the possibility that people can withdraw their recognition of the legitimacy of the state if they believe that violence is being wrongly or excessively used (which is the case in Syria). This then allows Runciman to describe some of the more problematic issues of the state in the contemporary world in which it is possible for states to wield unprecedented amounts of destructive force against people far away but in conditions in which it is likely that the truth will be revealed, sooner or later.
The other principal chapters concern technology and justice and follow the same rational and well-argued approach that the reader will have come to expect. This does not mean Runciman is unable or unwilling to take unusual or even controversial positions: for example, his argument that children have a right to vote which they might be able to exercise from the age of six (when they might be able to make some kinds of informed decisions by themselves) has provoked some debate once the initial shock was overcome. Particularly in a world facing catastrophic climate change seems set to destroy the future that those children might have been able to expect, it seems fair that they should have some say in the ways in which the state is organized to preserve their interests into the future.
The book, as mentioned, is quite a short one and it is copiously illustrated by cartoons and graphics that other people will perhaps enjoy more than I did. Nevertheless, this is an entertaining and enlightening introduction to actual issues in politics rather than in party politics and worth considering. As an ‘idea in profile,’ it more than meets its requirements.