15 December, 2006Issue 6.1Politics & SocietyWorld Politics

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Crisis of the Charismatic

Matthew Pennycook

David Runciman
The Politics of Good Intentions:
History, Fear and Hypocrisy in The New World Order

Princeton University Press, 2006
211 Pages
ISBN 069112566X

In an interview with the Guardian in March 2003, Prime Minister Tony Blair brushed aside criticism of his Iraq policy in the following terms: ‘I’ve never claimed to have a monopoly of wisdom, but one thing I’ve learned in this job is you should always try to do the right thing, not the easy thing. Let the day-to-day judgments come and go: be prepared to be judged by history.’

In The Politics of Good Intentions: History, Fear and Hypocrisy in the New World Order, David Runciman, a lecturer in political theory at the University of Cambridge, provides an early attempt to fulfil that wish. The thrust of the book is an attack on Blair’s—and, to a far lesser degree, Bush’s—attempts at political absolution on the basis of good intentions. As Runciman concludes, the desire to be judged by one standard, while knowing that that standard—the standard of good intentions—cannot provide an adequate justification is based on hypocritical self-deception. In the political arena it is consequences that count and upon which history renders its judgement.

Runciman makes apparent these, and other, historical and philosophical insights and uses them to expose the current sores of international politics. The range is impressive as Runciman brings perspective to the attacks of 11 September 2001, and the resulting stew of Afghanistan, Iraq, al-Qaeda, and neo-conservatism. All this is driven by an evident irritation but The Politics of Good Intentions never descends into boisterous polemic. Runciman’s ire is thoughtful, restrained and informed.

Instinctively the choice of Blair as chief felon seems odd. In a study that purports to offer insights into the ‘New World Order,’ the reader may legitimately question the significance of Blair, the head of a middle-ranking power. Runciman acknowledges as much in his introduction, but defends his concentration on the British leader as a figure whose political life predates the arrival of George W. Bush or Osama Bin Laden onto the world stage. As Runciman argues, Blair is a ‘political leader of the late twentieth as well as the early twenty-first century.’ As such, he becomes the lens through which Runciman charts the emergence of ‘the politics of good intentions’ in contemporary international politics.

The book’s originality lies in its aim of showing ‘what is new in politics at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and what isn’t.’ For Runciman, 11 September 2001 undoubtedly marked a change in world affairs. Yet for him it was not the drastic rupture that Blair and Bush have depicted. It merely brought to the surface trends already at work in the world. The methods of political manipulation that followed have an even longer historical pedigree. For Runciman, these methods are merely contemporary reactions to the longstanding dilemma of modern state-based politics: how to reconcile individuals as both ‘separate persons and combined peoples’ in such a way as to ‘sustain the grand collective projects on which individual security was seen to depend.’

For Runciman, despite changes, this challenge remains central in the twenty-first century. It is manifested in the tension between government or personal ‘rule over men’ and governance or impersonal ‘administration over things.’ The balancing of the personal, charismatic aspects of leadership and the impersonal tasks of administration is what simultaneously enables the continuance of a diverse society and a functioning state. Yet the Blairite era seems to have upset this balance in its unconventional effort to merge extreme styles of both ‘government’ and ‘governance.’ Blair’s style of leadership is highly individual; he concentrates decision-making in Downing Street, yet at the same time the purported thrust of the New Labour political project is non-ideological management. For Runciman this novel exaggeration of both government and governance is a trend evident throughout the Western world.

What emerges from Runciman’s study is a fascinating, yet at the same time impressionistic and somewhat muddled experience. The reader is continually forced to re-arrange the various strands of thought in order to arrive at a cohesive narrative. The book thus never really escapes its origins as an amalgamated series of his articles and comment pieces in the London Review of Books. It is testament to Runciman’s talent that one comes away from the work feeling as though it could easily have been expanded into two or three distinct books. But forced into one volume, he is often unable to link his insights into the nature of contemporary international politics with his later treatment of political theory, or to weave them analytically through the workings of the wider international arena.

The absence of a strong conceptual whole in The Politics of Good Intentions also allows a number of irrelevancies to creep in. These include Runciman’s speculative psychological musings on the impact of Blair’s time at the elite Fettes School in Edinburgh and an entertaining, but misplaced, digression involving a detailed comparison of post-invasion Iraq with early Weimar Germany. The lack of a conceptual umbrella also means that the last chapters, dealing exclusively with political theory and the eighteenth century political theorists, miss the mark.

Despite these deficiencies Runciman’s work does contain an insightful account of the paradoxical policy rationales that have emerged in the wake of the 11 September attacks. It is in their erudite exploration that the strength of the book resides. The first of the many paradoxes he charts involves the ‘rhetoric of good intentions.’ Runciman shows how Blair has continually based his justifications for military action abroad on the basis of motive over outcome. Through the creation of a series of dichotomies he contrasts the ‘we’ who appreciated the harm our military action causes with ‘them,’ whose violent actions are driven by a conscious and deliberate malice. Yet, as Runciman uses Max Weber to explore, a responsible politician not only grasps the fact that even the purest of motives may necessarily have unintended consequences but is aware that outcomes are the ultimate arbiter of any political decision. The mark of a responsible politician is the ability to appreciate the inherent ambiguity of consequences and suffer in silence, because, as Runciman points out, ‘the test of politics is whether you can cope with the knowledge that you are not as good as you would like to be.’

Tony Blair thus becomes the antithesis of a responsible politician, not only asking for validation on the basis of intention but making his public struggle with guilt a part of the justification itself. The Blairite response to 11 September portrays restraint in military action as ‘evidence of good intentions, and good intention as evidence of restraint.’ As Runciman shows, the argument paradoxically becomes ‘because we regret, we have less to regret.’ It becomes evident that this type of public self-flagellation can be used to defend anything.

Blair’s rhetoric of good intentions is supplemented by the language of risk. Risk, as its principal philosopher Ulrich Beck has pointed out, provides a political placebo, harnessing fear to privileged knowledge in order to generate new conformity. The hypocrisy evident in Blair’s use of risk is typified by his divergent perceptions of the nature of the terrorist threat around the globe. For the democracies of the West, terrorism is bathed in the language of risk and inflated in order to portray the existence of an ‘existential threat.’ Yet, terrorism in Iraq is consistently described as a force unable to derail or disturb the experiment in democracy there. So, as Runciman summarises: ‘depending on where you look, democracy can be both infinitely vulnerable and more-or-less invulnerable to the threat of terrorist attack.’

To bolster these rhetorical justifications, Blair has consistently argued that all judgement can ultimately be discounted in the face of the wider verdict of history. While good intentions and risk are appropriate for what Runciman terms ‘news’ and ‘election’ time, they are subsumed in the Blairite analysis by the ultimate judgment of ‘historical’ time. Blair simultaneously asks us to believe that the attacks on the World Trade Towers ‘changed everything’ and yet at the same time bases his policy choices on the apparent timeless lessons of history. On the one hand history provides powerful analogies and parallels to strengthen justifications whilst, on the other, the apparent uniqueness of contemporary international politics means that old rules no longer apply. Consequently past standards and frameworks need adaptation, implemented by leaders who claim to know what political responses the twenty-first century demands.

It is perhaps a sign of the predicament of Western democracies that the solutions Runciman draws from his analysis of the hypocrisy, paradox and self-deception seem slightly incongruous with our contemporary political experience as individuals. For Runciman the solutions lie in the tried and tested techniques of the modern state: judicial oversight, time-limits on drastic emergency laws, vigorous and open parliamentary debate, a free press supplying a range of political views and an ‘inquisitive public driving the market for news.’

What Runciman fails to grasp is that while vital, these solutions do not address one of the central dilemmas of twenty-first century politics. The solutions he advocates developed historically from the determination of national publics to be represented. They were an early response to what he sees as the continuing dilemma of modern politics; the reconciliation of the ‘personal’ and ‘impersonal.’ Yet the defining feature of twenty-first century politics is a profound crisis of the ‘personal,’ a disintegration of the charismatic element involved in ‘rule over men’ which has resulted in progressive political disengagement and popular apathy. Runciman is right to argue that the methods of political manipulation he investigates may have pre-dated 11 September. However, he overlooks how those attacks facilitated an attempt by British and American politicians to solve the crisis of the ‘personal’ through the construction of a framework of national collective purpose.

Having failed to create this subjective purpose through ‘ethical’ interventions in places as diverse as Kosovo and Sierra Leone, Blair merely tried again with the more authoritative language of terrorism, security, and risk. It is thus the twenty-first century absence of the charismatic in modern Western government, of leadership able to forge a unity between individuals as vehicles of collective destiny, which has animated the British and American responses to the 11 September attacks. Ultimately, Runciman fails to understand how the various paradoxes he so elegantly outlines are an attempted, albeit flawed, solution to this current crisis. Moreover, what is equally frustrating is that the disparate themes needed to comprehend it are scattered throughout his book.

Self-deception, hypocrisy and paradox have, and will always be, possible outgrowths of political dilemma. What animates their contemporary incarnations is not Runciman’s belief in the need to balance the ‘personal’ leadership of men and ‘impersonal’ administration over things but the necessity of constructing a ‘personal’ in order to shore up the subjective unity upon which the modern state relies. It is this attempt to solve the crisis of the charismatic which explains Blair’s hypocritical self-deception, and which ultimately lies at the heart of the politics of good intentions.

Matthew Pennycook is an MPhil student in International Relations at Balliol College, Oxford.