David Runciman on Politics, the bottom line:
Politics is a nasty topic. Controversial, dirty, boring, you name it. But couldn’t you use some food for thought on why politics are so complex? I bet you can! So here is a reading suggestion.
In his book Politics, David Runciman explores what politics are about. He goes back to the basis, explains their role as well as why getting results is so complex. That’s definitely an interesting read, in my opinion. Absolutely worth your time if you want to try and think smarter about modern society debates!
Food for Thought: Politics – David Runciman
I bumped into David Runciman’s book Politics into a bookshop by chance.
I had never heard of the book, but its cover caught my eye. Red and well illustrated, with a promising topic, that sounded worth a look.
The paper had a nice touch, too. And I found more illustrations throughout the book. The whole thing had some style, so I bought it.
In retrospect, that purchase was a good purchase.
The book has given me lots of food for thought on what politics mean – which nowadays is quite a challenge. Because here is the thing: I don’t do politics and I’m generally quite skeptical when it comes to books written by politicians.
But this book isn’t about that, and Runciman isn’t a politician. The book is about analyzing what politics are from an intellectual perspective. And that, I couldn’t resist.
As usual, here is what you get on this page:
- A brief overview of the book (that includes my SMART takes).
- A much more comprehensive commentary of what the book is about, with the author's main topics explained in detail.
- The book's main themes, questions and conclusions in bullet points.
- Why the book was worth my time, why it will be valuable to you, and additional reading suggestions if you are interested in the topic!
Runciman’s Politics: a brief overview, for starters…
To put things simply, Politics will be of interest to those who wonder about the interaction between politics and modern societies. The book explores one important topic, in fact, and that’s the tendency of societies to fall apart when they fail to adapt to new, unforeseen challenges.
The author is interesting. David Runciman is a political scientist who teaches the subject matter at Cambridge. He heads the Politics Department there, as a matter of fact, and he has published several books on contemporary politics. Needless to say, the author is a thought leader in his field, and that’s good enough for me.
Now, I can hear you. A book by an academic? Come, on! Are you crazy? That’s gonna be tough!
But no, not really! First, I’m here to make you think smarter so a little challenge here and then isn’t a bad idea. Second, I honestly expected something more complex. The style is very accessible, for real.
The reason why I’m talking about this book is that Runciman has written it for a wide audience. He has robust food for thought to offer, and he does that with a mix of sharp writing, humor, and sarcasm. Not a purely academic style, in sum, and that makes the book very approachable.
Now, if I had to explain the book in a paragraph, I would say that Runciman explores politics from various angles. First, he analyses how those relate to violence. Second, he considers the relationship between politics and technology development. He then finishes with the difficulty of modern societies to use politics as a justice tool. And he explains all that taking Syria as a practical example, so that’s definitely not just purely academic. If you are interested in the topic, don’t be scared and go for it.
I’m getting into the details with a more comprehensive book review below (keep reading!), but in short, here is what the book says:
Runciman’s Politics: the comprehensive book review.
Now that you have the big picture of what the book is about, let me get into the details.
Politics focuses on the difficulty for societies to adapt to modern challenges. Runciman explains the role and power of politics from the beginning of the book (you wouldn’t expect less) with an interesting comparison of the Syrian and Danish models. Denmark sounds like heaven whilst Syria is rather like hell on earth these days.
So? Well, the difference between both countries is politics – which at the end of the day tend to either moderate or amplify situations. Danmark has used their political system to foster coexistence and tolerance, and the Danish have made the political choice to live in a peaceful way. In contrast, politics in Syria are a completely different story. The political system there is used to assert a form of security, whatever the rest.
What that means is, politics isn’t a fatality. It is a tool. A complex tool. But why is it so complex, then? Well, let’s find out!
As usual, this more comprehensive part of the book review starts with the main themes and questions considered in the book – in bullet points. I’ll then elaborate on the themes more extensively. Let’s dig in!
The book in bullet points
David Runciman explores these major themes:
- How to explain the role of politics?
- What is the relationship between politics and power?
- How could politics be affected by technology change?
- Why can’t modern politics help secure peace?
He also asks a variety of questions, including:
- Why are politics that complex, and what happens to societies that fail to adapt their politics to change?
- What is the relationship between politics, violence and power?
- How would things work when there is no consensus to preserve?
- What is the role of the state / politicians? Can they simply decide for the people when the people don’t care?
- How far can we go to preserve freedoms? Is it acceptable to use violence to preserve freedoms and peace?
- How do politics, politicians and policymaking interact with technology?
- What if politicians knew more about technology?
- Can technology rule without politics anyway?
- What are the challenges posed by technology (giants) in terms of society management?
- Why do politics fail securing justice?
- How can a conflict like the one in Syria still exist?
- What is it we want?
Sounds interesting, right? Now. In exploring this complexity, Runciman considers three main questions.
One looks at the relationship between politics and violence – and leads to asking how societies can turn from safety to chaos, from heaven to hell.
The second question turns to the complex interactions between politics, policymaking, politicians, and technology.
The third question deals with tolerance. In sum, how do politics, morality, and society work together when it comes to creating justice? As Runciman writes it, “we can’t have justice without politics, but politics still fails the demands of justice”. Ambitious discussion… Just keep reading!
Politics – Theme #1: On violence, controlling violence and using violence to control.
David Runciman first explores the relationship between politics, violence, and power. His point here is that the basic function of political apparels is to control violence because violence is both risky and powerful.
So, the starting point here is that politics are about controlling violence and acquiring power. We naturally see a peace-keeping aspect here, obviously. But beyond that, violence is power and whoever controls violence controls power.
Uh, uh. Well, yes, sure, of course.
Wait, there’s more to it. Politics is a form of violence in itself. As Runciman puts it, ‘politics are violent because they consist in applying the necessary amount of pressure to obtain the wanted results‘. Think about it. If violence can influence or force a variety of behaviors, the threat of violence is even more powerful, right? Well, the same logic applies to politics, which in many cases consist in imposing rules through coercion. From warfare to the threat of fining you for letting your dog anywhere, forms of violence aimed at asserting authority surround us all the time.
In sum, politics come as a complex mix of consensus-building and coercion. The people find a consensus, and political apparels exercise pressure where needed, for the sake of preserving and implementing the said consensus.
But what happens when there’s no consensus to preserve? Well, politics would then become a problem. Again, the example of Denmark and Syria is relevant. In Denmark, the political system serves a coexistence and peace objective, as decided by the society. In contrast, in Syria, the society has no common goal whatsoever. Hence, in Syria politics does not serve, it widens the cracks.
Politics and the state
Having explained the complex operating model behind politics, Runciman then explores the role of the state (or the role of politicians, as a matter of fact) in building and maintaining a society.
To do that, he looks at how previous thinkers used to interpret the role of politics. In particular, he discusses the work of Thomas Hobbes, who is largely known for his ideas on the Leviathan (1651).
The Leviathan is an interesting reference here because violence was out of control at the time. So, Hobbes imagined a model in which one tough (yes, tough) leader takes control over the society.
The model sounds shocking nowadays, but at the time it was provocatively presented as an extreme solution. Think about it! After all, if people cannot trust each other and have no common direction, how can society advance?
When the people refuse (or fail) to decide, politics is not about deciding together. Politics becomes a matter of about refusing to find a consensus, politics is about non-politics. In turn, a society guided by non-politics tends to be governed by a ‘state of nature’, understand a type of permanent struggle where the strongest decides for the others.
So, provocatively, instead of going nowhere because of a lack of a common goal, why not entrusting a leader to take control and decide what the consensus is and what peace means? No-one is doing the job anyway, right?
Now, obviously the argument was provocative and dangerous, and Runciman does a great job of explaining it. Apply this logic to Syria… Would you have a bad government or no government and chaos? Tough question.
How about individual freedoms, then?
Nowadays, peace has become so natural that freedoms have naturally become the next level of politics. States and politicians have over time acquired new roles and responsibilities. Hence, politics has become an accepted tool. We are conscious of its existence and we expect politics to yield results in the form of a balance whereby everyone’s interests would also be protected.
Still, freedoms were not even a question during Hobbes’ period. The stakes were with violence and peace, not with freedoms. Politics has evolved, new expectations have appeared.
But how far can we go with freedoms?
In reality, the real question is, what are the new expectations? Politics and politicians have a role to play. But which one? How far can politics go in order to preserve our individual balance? As mentioned before, the fear of state power is a tool which helps to prevent violence. But how far do we say politics should go?
To answer that question, Runciman turns to another thinker: Machiavelli. For Machiavelli, ruling is about power preservation and therefore politics allows for the use of violence for the sake of preserving tranquility and order. Again, put that argument in a Syrian context. Violence aims at preserving the established order. Rings a bell?
Clean hands first.
For Runciman, however, modern politics goes beyond Machiavelli.
At the time, power and violence worked together. Fine. No-one would dare to question anyway. Nowadays, however, our societies have somehow developed excuses to legitimize certain forms of violence and violent politics. Democracy, in particular, has made violence legitimate to the people in certain circumstances.
In short, violence has become what Runciman calls an accepted “monopoly” that we let our rulers use as long as they shield us from the ugly and dirty. The people, by the same token, have used the political process to shield themselves from responsibility. We vote, we decide, we empower politicians to do politics that will preserve us. But violence in politics is out of our reach. Our hands remain clean.
An easy example of that can be found with drones, as Runciman notes. Drones are nothing but political violence, but that violence happens so far that we can’t be held responsible.
>> Related reading: On drones and violence organized by States, see also World politics: Noam Chomsky has one question: Who Rules the World?
The issue and dangers of peace.
So, citizens are happy to allow a certain type of political violence, provided that it brings them peace, stability, and peace of mind. To this extent, Runciman notes, peace and stability therefore create a threat. Citizens are disengaged, liability becomes a mere “background noise”.
Nowadays, he adds, we have the technology, the information. Still, we also have the riots and a variety of excesses which our leaders deal with through force. And, at the end of the day, we hardly say anything. So, are we back to zero? The discussion is very interesting. If you want to explore more, get the book, you’ll enjoy it.
Politics – Theme #2: Politics and Technology.
The relationship between politics and technology is the second big theme of David Runciman’s book. This is interesting, as a matter of fact, because while there are many books and talks on how technologies will impact our societies, there isn’t much to be read on the impact of technological change on politics.
>> Interested in technology topics? Read my food for thought and book reviews on technology & trendy stuff.
The technology revolution.
Runciman starts with the few political revolutions which palpably marked the last decades. Think, Arab Spring, for Instance. To him, however, the biggest political revolution could come from technological progress.
In his words, “technology has the power to make politics seem obsolete“, if only because “the speed of change leaves governments looking slow, cumbersome, unwieldy and often irrelevant“. But there’s more. Technological change also brings questions as to the value of ownership, as to the role (and limitations) of information.
Still, is point is that technology itself won’t build brick and mortar infrastructure or execute regalian functions such as peace-keeping or justice implementation. What that means is, technology might well impact politics, but policymaking will for sure remain essential to our societies. Runciman gives a variety of examples here. Think climate change, financial market regulation, research and development budgets… There you go.
Politics vs Tech Giants
Runciman also explores the relationship between our political systems and technology by looking at how modern giants behave.
There’s no mystery here, Google and other technology groups are so advanced that political leaders now need to think about their input on our societies. (Did you hear about European parliamentarians asking Mark Zuckerberg whether he intended people to remember Facebook as that company known for reducing private liberties to zero? There you go…)
Finance giants are also part of the discussion. Banks are strong enough to control financial markets. Hence, financialization has become a threat, especially when states need to deal with the instability created by the financial industry and/or when they have no choice but to rescue negligent financiers with tax-payer money. Again, politics and societies need to adapt to trends and evolutions of all sorts. But to what extent?
Technocracy, democracy and aristocracy.
David Runciman’s analysis of the relationship between technology and politics does not stop right there. It also considers what would happen if technology ruled over democracy, if technocrats replaced politicians or if politics became a matter of ‘how’ instead of being a matter of ‘what’.
With the professionalization of politics – understand, making elections and re-elections a job – comes a lack of experience as politicians have little knowledge of the real world. So, what if politicians had more technological knowledge? Would the political process be different? What would be the impact on the ‘political class’?
>> For more on this topic, read Runciman’s article ‘Why replacing politicians with experts is a reckless idea‘ on The Guardian (link will open in a new window).
Politics – Theme #3: Politics ought to create Justice, right?
The third theme in Politics deals with the relationship between our political implementation systems and Justice. Here, Runciman asks more questions and gives the reader significant food for thought as to what we want for the future.
When politics fail.
I’ve mentioned several times already that Runciman uses Syria as an example throughout his book. A question was still to be asked, though. Why on earth is the Syrian war still taking place?
The question is essential, but it also shows the limits of politics. Is the priority to have a functioning state or is it to ensure peace at all costs? When do politics create justice or injustice? When does justice create chaos? How can we measure political success, at the end of the day?
Again, what do we want?
Do we want to make decisions or do we consider that after all a ‘no-politics’ type of politics is safe enough? The question works when it comes to chaos, but the idea could also be extended to values such as democracy or liberalism. After all, these concepts govern us, but aren’t they all social constructs at the heart of modern politics? Alternatively, Runciman asks, should we focus on a Chavez-style form of politics based on populism? What can we do?
>> On the role of social constructs on societies, read also: Why Obama loved Harari’s book ‘Sapiens, a Brief History of Mankind
No, ‘think different isn’t just about Apple and Guy Kawasaki. Runciman also uses the idea to explore more alternatives. For instance, could we consider creating a world government that would basically redistribute globally? Runciman comes back to Hobbes’ vision of the Leviathan here, where the model ultimately suffers from a ‘no politics’ mindset. But as he writes provocatively, centuries later the formula remains the same. All it takes is a central authority with the coercive power to levy tax and then decide how they would get spent!
The barrier to this alternative is obvious. Need a hint? Politi… you do the rest! As Runciman notes, for a no-politics model to work (and be accepted), “some truly cataclysmic collective threat” would have to take place, for countries to become “vulnerable” enough to give up on power and “scale up” for the common good.
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The main conclusions
David Runciman overall comes to the following conclusions.
- Politics are a complex mix of consensus-building and consensus-implementation, which means that politics are about controlling violence AND about using forms of violence to get things done.
- When there is no consensus, politics become a matter of no-politics, which means someone has to decide for everyone else. In that case, however, politics only widens the cracks.
- Individual freedoms are a new evolution of politics, and they create challenges because the people want security with clean hands.
- Technologies will make politics obsolete, but they will also force politicians to inform themselves and think differently. The social position of the ‘political class’ will also be impacted.
- The impact of technology giants on our societies will be a real challenge. Societies need to adapt their politics to change, but to what extent should we adapt, after all?
- The difficulty with the Syrian situation is that we can’t tell what we want. Would we rather have no government and chaos or a bad government that decides when no-one tries to change the system?
Food for Thought
As usual, let’s finish this book review with some food for thought!
I thought that Politics by David Runciman was worth my time and money because it made me think about three important things.
Obviously, the first thing related to what the hell politics are about. At the end of the day, politics are everywhere but what we see is merely the tip of the iceberg. What we see is quarreling types of politics. As if party arguments where the core. So, Runciman’s book is a good way to get back to the basics, meditate and reconsider. Talking about politician-related politics, you could also have a look at Hillary Clinton’s book on What Happened during the U.S. Presidential Election of 2016, by the way.
The second big question that came to my mind was, what is wrong with us? The Syrian issue is a good example here, and Runciman’s book provides really good food for thought if you’re interested in going further than what your TV says.
I know you are, come on! As a matter of fact, I’m ready to bet a week of free coffee that if international politics are of interest to you, you will enjoy this book. You know what? I’m not taking any risk here. So let’s make it two whole weeks of free coffee!
Last but not least, I was very interested to read Runciman’s analysis of the politics vs technology debate.
I’ve read a variety of books on technology over the past months and I wrote my thoughts on several of them on I’ll Make You Think SMART. I must say though, all those books take technology progress as the one, central topic, treating it as a modern hero that will soon change us. But the political aspect of the revolution remains minor, if not absent. In contrast, Politics by David Runciman treats politics as the main topic. The perspective is different, and that’s interesting enough to mention it.
To wrap-up, I’d say that Politics by David Runciman was really a good and interesting read. Worth my time, really, and most likely worth yours, especially if international politics are amongst your topics. Of course, the book is very theoretical – and you need some of that too. Yet, Runciman asks the right questions and gives the reader a fairly practical overview of what the hell is happening around us.
There are more books to read on the topic of politics, obviously.
Talking about partisan politics, I mentioned Hillary Clinton’s book What happened earlier, for instance. If you are rather interested in the violence of politics and financialization, also have a look at my notes on Noam Chomsky’s book Who Rules the World?.
On the technological side of things, I would particularly recommend The Fourth Industrial Revolution by Klaus Schwab from the World Economic Forum. That book places technology at the center, as suggested earlier. Nonetheless, Schwab does explore the issue of governance in depth, which makes both books very complementary. Just follow the link to read my notes!
For more reading suggestions, have a look at my food for thought and book notes on technology and politics.
Great food for thought if you’re interested in finding out what politics actually are about (beyond political chit-chat).
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