By Ashwani Kumar
Celebrity political theorist and author David Runciman is back from his lockdown sabbatical with a work of startling originality and beauty, an illuminating arc of the global age of danger and uncertainty. In Confronting Leviathan, an elegant and engaging primer of political ideas, Runciman reveals visceral truths of the liberating and horrifying effects of Leviathan —both the machine and the human— ‘the ultimate double creation’ of Homo sapiens. Leaning on modern and contemporary thinkers in political theory, Runciman persuasively and provocatively argues why “coronavirus has not suspended politics”. On the contrary, it has revealed the true nature of what Thomas Hobbes famously called Leviathan, a biblical sea monster without which “no arts; no letters; no society”. Further, in the absence of Leviathan, “continual fear and danger of violent death” will make “the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”, in the memorable words of Hobbes. Does it sound hypothetical or theoretical in the age of pandemic and extinction rebellion?
In a chillingly apocalyptic tone, David Runciman writes that “first lockdown was a strange political experience… Politics had been reduced to the essentials. It was a matter of life and death, and government decisions helped determine who would live and who would die. It was based on physical coercion. Citizens were required to remain in their homes, to keep a fixed distance from each other, and they were prevented from marrying, mourning together, or even attending one another’s death beds. All this would have familiar from a far earlier time. But at the same time, this more basic politics posed a very twenty-first century question; would people be willing to put up with it?”
This frightening scenario, further exacerbated by war in Ukraine, led David Runciman during his lockdown home stay to revert to exploring the most fundamental political institution—the modern state—that “faced up to the pandemic, for better and for worse, and is now creating carnage and heroism in Ukraine”. Will this Faustian bargain between humans and Leviathan save us from new forms of tyranny in liberal democracies and authoritarian systems? That’s where he confronts the core paradox of modern politics, “is the state that we built to keep us safe going to be our saviour or our destroyer? Could it be somehow both”, in his memorable words.
And he explains this central puzzle in an avant-garde style of teaching politics. Based on his highly popular History of Ideas podcast series, Runciman organises 12 most important thinkers and prominent ideas lying behind modern politics —from Thomas Hobbes, Mary Wollstonecraft, Benjamin Constant, De Tocqueville, Marx and Engels, Gandhi, Hannah Arendt, Fanon, Weber, Hayek, MacKinnon to Fukuyama—in order to explain the vicissitudes of the modern state from the middle of the seventeenth century to the end of the twentieth.
Written as stylised Socratic dialogues, each of the 12 chapters can be read as separate accounts and also as part of a single story on an oceanic scale. What makes Confronting Leviathan so irresistible is its doubleness; quirky, conversational, and playful, it is also a profound introspection of the most pressing issues of our times—revolutions, wars, the spread of democracy and the failure of communism, feminist and post-colonial critiques and the anxieties around ‘End of History’, now and never.
And for India and China watchers, here is a shocking revelation that “both modern India and China rest on a founding myth which is deeply critical of the idea of the modern state, and which is nothing like the states that they have become”. Reminding us of Franz Fanon’s acute insight that “how we all (colonised and colonisers) live under conditions of modernity, potentially trapped, potentially free”, Runciman shows why crises like the pandemic have generated new ways of political thinking, challenging the swashbuckling prognosis of Fukuyama and Harari. In other words, central to his exposition of the Janus-faced nature of the modern state is “whether we are masters or slaves of our machines” (Leviathan)” in the immortal words of Hannah Arendt.
I am not aware if like Hobbes, David Runciman has studied Euclidean geometry or he was slightly feverish while writing Confronting Leviathan, but his brilliantly lighted prose, suffused with flamboyant philosophical and political insights, is ‘metaphorical, allegorical and analogical’. In other words, Runciman is a daring, gifted storyteller who redefines the art of narrating history of ideas as an act of witness in its deepest sense, an introspection that is as much about the historical catastrophe as it is about human ingenuity to tame Frankenstein’s monster. That’s why the assorted texts by prominent thinkers are arranged in a musical ensemble; they are full-voiced and mirthful, the chemistry between them is strikingly alchemical—blending ideological genres, and political polarities—moving as one storming number after another, leaving us stunned. If Hobbes’s Leviathan is a bit brassy with an old-style glamour, Gandhi comes with a dazzling show of lighting neon lightbulbs to celebrate the annihilation of the state, and Mackinnon triumphantly stomping over the state as ‘pornographic- propagating machine’ in the age of the Internet.
Though sometimes his hyper-Procrustean stretching of key texts like Communist Manifesto or The Road to Serfdom spoils the narrative flavour of his storytelling, Runciman turns teaching of politics into a rare immersive multisensory experience. This truly makes Confronting Leviathan as an ars poetica for scholars, students and general readers interested in unpacking the politics of desire and dread amidst the onslaughts of the pandemic. In other words, no matter how familiar you are with the story of power politics since ages, Confronting Leviathan is written with strangely intimate premonitory brilliance that is cathartic and redemptive simultaneously—like spring awakening in the midst of lightning and thunder. And you will be tempted to agree with David Runciman that the state is “both the machine and human—indispensable, and it is also not inevitable, and mortal too”. To conclude, as I prepare to walk by the seaside as it rains heavily in Mumbai, I shall read Confronting Leviathan again and again, wondering about living with or without Leviathan—‘the coldest of all coldest monsters’ in the haunting words of Nietzsche!
Ashwani Kumar is a poet, political scientist and professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai
Confronting Leviathan: A History Of Ideas
Pp 288, Rs 599