From education to employment

Pursuing Political Aims

Coronation Royal Chicken in Hartlepool promenade

A recent paperback by Cambridge Professor of Politics and author David Runciman (1) examines the writing of twelve major scholars to reconsider their main themes and how they relate to today’s modern political milieu. Only two are condensed here, Hobbes (Chapter 1: Hobbes on the State) and Weber (Chapter 7: Weber on Leadership).

Professor Runciman gives The Leviathan as Hobbes (1588-1679) most rational and important work, and suggests it is an amazing piece of writing. Hobbes was a student of law, history, philosophy and theology, in fact, biblical imagery plus geometry inspired his political output. Central puzzles for this mid-seventeenth scholar were power, leadership, accountability, and liberty. Some people make the rules; others live by them and bear the consequences.

Seems familiar, but don’t senior figures – regardless of whether we admire them – also bear consequences: a career which dominates their every week, the risk of appearing in public without an escort, media harassment from those who don’t support them, and likely overspills of envy/antipathy towards their family? Writing at the time of the Spanish Armada, his ideas about choices (you tribe or my tribe, your church or my church) don’t seem completely wrong: we do make choices, though in several cases we have them thrust upon us by well-meaning parents, teachers, doctors, et al, where the alternatives to a reluctantly chosen option seem even worse.  

Yet our entire lives are hardly spent making important decisions or being creatures in motion ‘running away from death’ (p14); rather we continue (viz Sir Geoffrey Vickers) to conduct social relationships through time. Vickers suggested examples of the ongoing lifestyle of a married couple to be more important than the decision and service of marriage, likewise an applicant ‘getting the job’ is only the beginning of shared experiences across the years. An outlier in the world of management science, he persistently downplayed the significance of goal-seeking theory – though sufficient for studying rats’ behaviour in mazes, it ranks as ‘totally inadequate to explain what goes on in the Cabinet, in board rooms… committees, and in our everyday life’, (P Checkland, Systems Thinking, Systems Practice, 1981).     `

The word sceptic takes on a special guise in Hobbes’ political theory as someone looking for ‘a baseline of certainty’ on which to build rather than one who simply questions accepted opinions. Hobbes himself wasn’t a deep sceptic, rather he ambitiously tried to uncover one thing which all rational beings ought to agree on. Would he have encouraged questions among political groups engaged in assessing energy policy?

Isn’t a sprinkling of questions better than taking desirable green futures as undoubtedly doable? Suppose Wendy isn’t certain wind turbines are the baseline solution for her county; her nagging doubts means she’d like to see some calculations from the people pushing for more turbines. Is Wendy deploying a healthy ‘Hobbesian principle’ here, albeit far away from the world of Sovereigns and republics, or is she exercising a practical mindset encouraged by her parents/English teacher? For Hobbes to be ‘essential for making sense of our world’ I feel his seventeenth century intellectual legacy needs to be presented in new problem-oriented ways, so supporting its potential for application by contemporary groups.

They don’t necessarily have to share Hobbes’ worry over ‘order or chaos’ (p19): they may be content in seeking a little less disorder than they already have! One of his fellow intellectuals was Rene Descartes, hence this chapter again allows us to consider I think, therefore I am.  It reads sensible when reversed, I am the village dentist, so I often mull over dental care promotions, anesthetics, technology exhibitions, my next wealthy patient, etc. Better still, Descartes can be drafted as a circular process, with a dentist’s stock of ideas influencing practice and his everyday problems (at the chair) constructively feeding back to accumulated mental experience.  

Chapter seven’s title ‘Weber on leadership’ suggested an easier read: leaders and their work being popular in education, history lessons, economic reviews, and holiday reading. And since Max Weber, a student at Heidelberg University, lived more recently, 1864-1920, his writing is centuries closer to the modern world we experience. Weber was born in dangerous times, an uncertain and unpredictable period – Spanish Flu wreaking havoc in the closing months of World War 1, with Germany ‘ravaged and hungry’. Such turbulence aligns with Weber’s remark (p17) ‘Academics are not good at making decisions under conditions of uncertainty’, though readers might ask is any wise sage consistently good at making decisions during such times?

Now and then, writing in this chapter might also have been supplemented with notes. For instance, one century back, Weber summed up the character of the state in just a couple of words – it successfully ‘claims the monopoly of legitimate coercion’, translated by professor Runciman as ‘the violence machine’. However, city motorists unhappily caught up in a slow-moving traffic jam behind pedestrian protestors might argue we have one of the most patient and polite police forces in Europe. Can we have expected Weber at the turn of the nineteenth century to foresee today’s responsibilities and pressures, say, in housing, education, and health? Regarding social science, a subject which includes sociology, political science, and history – he believed it could teach a lot about how politics works and institutions develop, but not what politicians should do. I take this to mean how politics and institutions work in theory, according to some remarkable intellectual merger of carefully selected theories/scenarios extracted from texts on sociology, political science, history, et al. Can any of the latest AI systems attempt to do this?

Chapter seven alone holds topics which may have more significance to professional academic and politics students than ‘the others’ noted in the book’s preface, three groups which make up the author’s intended audience. These topics (in chapter seven) include the Bavarian revolution, constitutional liberal democracy, modern liberal democratic state, Bolshevik-style republic, and liberal constitutional state. Even if these potentially difficult entities are described within numerous pages, to what extent do their lessons carry forward into the 2020s?

Was it their structure, resources, and chosen missions which led to success, relative periods of calm across national borders, or chance relationships between unique historic players? Any forceful personalities back then? Nigel Farage has recently expressed gratitude to Boris Johnson for his decision to support the Leave side in 2016; he admitted without such support ‘a quarter of a century of my life would have been a failure’. In this era, Farage was determined that no Brexit Party candidate would face up to the three hundred or so seats won by Conservatives in the previous general election. Did their careers have to take just one direction, with no other stark possibilities, pleasant options, or gentler lifestyles?              

Hobbes chose The Leviathan as his book’s title, the name referring to a mystical sea monster. While our current knowledge of sea monsters (like Galeocerda cuvier, Crocodylus porosus,) is much richer today, writers appear far less expert in the social world of groups and their dissimilar values, missions, and jargon. Such work is hard to describe, occasionally unfathomable. For instance, a recent Saturday Essay by David Blunkett (The Yorkshire Post, June 10) begins ‘If you’re wondering what on earth has been going on in relation to the Covid Inquiry and the release of WhatsApp messages, you’re not alone.’ He also wrote that Baroness Hallett faces an unusually difficult task because there’s a lack of clarity around what the Government is trying to interrogate – exactly what do they want to learn?

Next day, Janet Daley (Sunday Telegraph, June 11, Comment) squared up to both main parties, telling readers that The Conservative Party is circulating incoherent rhetoric while seeming mightily confused over its social and economic objectives. Meanwhile, Labour chiefs are staggering on the ropes, not knowing what to say about ‘any of the critical issues of the day’ – because the party is unable to decide who it is speaking for: its nonchalant ‘metropolitan circle’ apparently knows very little about ordinary working folk. This suggests those puzzled by opaque political aims need to employ a more self-critical approach, arranging rational debate that assists learning via a more pertinent form of language relevant to the obscure problems of the day. 

By Neil Richardson, Kirkheaton

1  Confronting Leviathan – A History of Ideas   Profile Books 2022

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