Does hypocrisy have a place in politics?

David Runciman’s new book is erudite and thought-provoking. But in lambasting the cynics who are obsessed with exposing political hypocrisy it risks defending the democratic façade to state power.

Tim Black

Tim Black

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Deriving from the Greek word Hypokrisis, meaning ‘to play a part’, hypocrisy is very much the ancient art. Literally, as it happens, since the original Hypocrites were, in fact, classical stage actors.

Its theatrical origins shed some semantic light on this most frequent of accusations. For hypocrisy is not simply lying – that is, a non-coincidence with the truth. Hypocrisy is, rather, a question of character, or better still, a question of whether the persona constructed, the role one plays, provides a false impression of one’s actual beliefs and practices.

Despite the term’s long history, however, one could be forgiven for feeling that public life is currently awash with hypocrisy. Whether it’s a do-gooding narcissist, a moralising adulterer, or an austerity-preaching hedonist, the virtuous posture rarely travels unaccompanied by a contradictory reality. Indeed, so often is the public mask now rent, that its existence seems merely a prelude to the sinful revelation, be it brothel excursions or an enormous carbon footprint.

No sphere is more thoroughly stained with double standards than the political. Barely a week passes without a story of an ostentatiously upright MP’s extra-marital affair or a sleaze-buster caught channelling public funds into a private account. Private vice, it seems, is the permanently exposed underbelly of contemporary Western politics. In return, the pervasive whiff of hypocrisy provokes an understandably cynical response: politicians – you can’t trust them.

Enter David Runciman with Political Hypocrisy: The Mask of Power, from Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond. Looking at the issue of political hypocrisy as worked out in the lives and thought of figures such as Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Jefferson, and Jeremy Bentham, Runciman does not so much defend hypocrisy per se as delineate its benign forms from its malign. In other words, at times a certain amount of dissembling on the part of our political representatives might actually be desirable; at other times less so.

Such tricky argumentation, involving what seem innumerable, torturous paragraphs on the hypocrisy of anti-hypocrisy or the self-deception of sincerity, does not make for an easy read. Contradictions spawn paradoxes and paradoxes spawn contradictions; at points Runciman is in danger of disappearing up his own circumlocution. After his chapter on the early eighteenth-century satirist Bernard Mandeville, he makes what seems a self-defeating admission: ‘It is dangerous to take what he has to say too literally, or expect too much overall coherence from it.’ Which does raise the question as to why Runciman has tried so hard to do precisely that.

But despite the temptations of recondite reasoning, insights abound. Indeed, the great strength of Political Hypocrisy lies with its governing impulse. That is, if hypocrisy currently appears so problematically ubiquitous, perhaps the problem lies not with hypocrisy itself but with the contemporary obsession with its exposure. As Runciman puts it in his preface, he wants to be able to think about hypocrisy in modern politics and avoid cynicism and despair.

It is for this reason that he selects the thinkers he does – that is, those from an ostensibly ‘classic liberal tradition’ rather than the usual suspects, such as Machiavelli’s The Prince or Sun Tzu’s Art of War. As opposed to these ‘and other hackneyed manuals of managerial realpolitik’, Hobbes, Bentham or Orwell are characterised by their refusal to bow to easy, politically dismissive cynicism, itself a species of frustrated virtue.

Instead of seeing in politicians’ hypocrisy the essential iniquity of man, they sought to grasp hypocrisy as a necessary product of representative politics. In other words, the public persona which ‘disguiseth the face, as a mask or Vizard’, to quote Hobbes, marks the distinction between the individual as an everyman and his exceptional role as political representative. The danger then is not hypocrisy, but sincerity, the self-deluding identity of a particular individual with his position of political power. Such thinking allows Runciman to explore his central thesis that hypocrisy is not a necessary evil exactly, but that, in certain of its forms, it is simply necessary: ‘[I]t does not matter whether or not our politicians are all wearing masks, if that is what is needed to make our form of politics work. What does matter is if people are hypocritical about that.’

In this sense, the private passions and beliefs of public figures ought to be the least of our concerns. By their very nature as private, they can be tolerated for as long as they are concealed. ‘Hypocrisy is the tribute vice plays to virtue’, wrote the seventeenth-century aphorist Francois Rochefocauld.

Elsewhere, Runciman quotes Mandeville: ‘A man need not conquer his passions, it is sufficient that he conceals them. Virtue bids us subdue, but good breeding only requires that we should hide our Appetites.’ The danger, as Runciman sees it, comes not from hypocrisy, a tolerance of the inconsistency between the private figure and his public persona (in other words, between a flawed everyman and the implied flawlessness of his political role), but from those who are hypocritical about the existence of hypocrisy. They deceive themselves as to the virtue of virtue.

Here Mandeville was thinking of the Earl of Shaftesbury with his anti-Hobbesian insistence on the fundamentally altruistic, moral aspect to human nature. Unconvinced, Mandeville sought to scandalise those who, like Shaftesbury, would sincerely advocate self-abnegation. His riposte in such works as The Fable of the Bees and the The Grumbling Hive, was actively to celebrate hypocrisy. It was the only way of negotiating a balance between individual passions and the demands of society: ‘It is impossible that Man, mere Fallen Man… should be sociable creatures without hypocrisy.’

Moreover, as he saw it, the conquest of our appetites would actually be catastrophic for a commercial society that relies upon their existence. Mandeville’s thesis reads like this: ‘Private vices, public benefits.’ A tolerance of the disjuncture between the socially necessary demands of public virtue and the reality of private passions prevents one from succumbing to the self-deception of the tyrannically virtuous.

This often excoriating, frequently confusing assault on the hypocrisy of anti-hypocrisy and its all too easy collapse into a autocratic sanctimony runs like a red thread through Runciman’s analyses of the featured figures. And it provides a useful rejoinder to the ethical postures and soul-bearing routines of contemporary politicians, for whom the mask is taken for the man. Indeed, anti-hypocrisy entails something like the moralisation of politics, a transformation of public roles, of political masks into displays of self-righteous sincerity. This becomes clear in one of the book’s central themes, language; or rather, the act of dressing up the exercise of political power in ethical terms.

This first becomes clear in Runciman’s discussion of Hobbes where he turns to look at paradiastole, or what the intellectual historian, Quentin Skinner, calls ‘rhetorical redescription’. This denotes the act of not just describing an action, but, in doing so, commending or denouncing it. For Hobbes, this was what he called ‘colouring’, the act of giving an action a particular moral hue.

Hobbes’ objection stemmed from his conception of the state of nature, of bellum omnium contra omnes: the war of all against all. In the absence of a sovereign power to arbitrarily, albeit necessarily, prescribe a moral code, there exists instead ‘the endless attempt by individuals to redescribe what they happen to prefer as virtue, and what others happen to prefer as vice’.

The danger of ‘colouring’ is that the reality of political power, its sheer arbitrariness, is concealed as something morally justified. This makes an hypocrisy of the sovereign act: ‘If the moral arbitrariness of the state of nature produces the need for sovereign power, then the need for that power is the one thing that no one should try to hide behind the colourful language of vice and virtue. For the one thing that colour terms might mask is the fact of moral arbitrariness itself, ie, the fact that there are no virtues and vices, except on the say-so of the sovereign.’

Hobbes’ critique of the colouring of political power was not without its urgent context, of course. For it was precisely this that Hobbes held responsible for the hypocrisy of the insurrections of the 1640s – that is, the passing off of civil disobedience by Presbyterian firebrands as a commitment to a higher set of values.

In his discussion of the nineteenth-century utilitarian Jeremy Bentham, Runciman returns to this concern with the hypocritical presentation of political power as morally sanctioned. Like Hobbes, Bentham despised the concealment of basic social facts of existence with what Runciman calls mere ‘babble’. This Bentham characterises as ‘insignificant’ language, be it ‘the meaningless jabber of professional jargon’, the contradictory use of meaningful discourse (for example, ‘natural rights’), or ‘cant’: the sing-song consolation of pleasing, well-meaning words. The danger, as Bentham sees it, is that, for example, in the professional jargon of legal discourse, state injustice can be passed off as justice. As Runciman writes in his discussion of Orwell, ‘obscurantist language is most dangerous when it attempts to conceal the truth about political power’.

But lest the argument that emerges from Political Hypocrisy appear nihilistic – that all rhetorical redescription of political actions, whether explicitly moralised or not, conceals the basic arbitrariness of that political action, and that hard-won political sovereignty ought therefore to recognise its fundamental illegitimacy – Runciman’s concluding chapter on Orwell mounts a defence of the necessity of such concealment. Writing of the English alliance of democracy with imperialism, Orwell notes that the brute force implicit in the latter is blunted by the moral charade of the former – the notion that state power is subservient to the interests of its subjects, all of whom are apparently equal. It is ‘a society ruled by the sword, no doubt, but a sword which must never be taken out of its scabbard’.

Imperialism without the mask of democracy – in other words, the anti-hypocritical exercise of power without compunction or concealment, in which power is utterly transparent to itself – would be fascism. This is the authoritarian universe of 1984, a world without private life; indeed, a world in which one’s interior life was no more than a mirror of public slogans. Orwell was ‘an anti-hypocrite for whom there were worse things than hypocrisy’, remarks Runciman favourably. Democratic hypocrisy, the cosy facade of sheer power, was preferable to the truth of the total lie. Orwell had an image for this: ‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face – forever.’

These are, for Runciman, democratic fictions, the masks necessary to protect citizens from the arbitrary exercise of power. To the authoritarianism of Hobbes’ Leviathan, where the ‘King is the people’, others like Bentham or Orwell sought recourse in the democratic fiction, the ‘people is the king’. Hence, for Bentham, while he deplored the mystifying use of language, he was forced to invoke the fictional ‘public opinion’ as a universalist bulwark against the arbitrary exercise of power by elected representatives.

It is a strange arc, from a Hobbesian denunciation of the hypocritical piety of those dressing up the political act as a moral mission, to an Orwellian defence of the democratic masquerade. But it makes sense in terms of Runciman’s circumscribed outlook. For as shabby a compromise as liberal democracy is, for Runciman, the alternatives, seen to be variants on a ‘totalitarian’ theme, are far worse.

Of course, the withering of the masks that sustain the status quo, that supply ruling elites with a veneer of legitimacy, be it the compromises of parliamentary democracy or the ersatz neutrality of law, is something towards which anyone interested in challenging the existing political system ought to strive. But Runciman, or so it seems, prefers the soft-focus mask to the boot stomping truth of state power. In this regard, his casual dismissal of Orwell’s espousal of socialism as merely ‘unconvincing’ speaks all too clearly.

Instead, Runciman’s position recalls Max Weber, a figure whose rejection of the promise of the Russian Revolution left him before a ‘rationalised’ social world lacking the raison d’etre with which, in the form of the protestant ethic, it had once been invigorated. Stranded between the bald facts of social existence and the values that would animate it, Runciman’s ideal politician, like that detailed in Politics as a Vocation, is an individual who is able to involve himself in the charade of politics, of moral posturing, of visionary pretences, whilst remaining detached enough to recognise it for the mask that it is. The self-conscious hypocrite here strikes a heroic, tragic pose; his is a reckoning with the disenchanted reality of the real world, where the arbitrary exercise of state power demands the adoption of the leader’s charismatic mask for its popular assent.

Despite Runciman’s erudition, his sparks of illumination, this is a book born, like Weber’s famous essay, in what is experienced, in lieu of alternatives, as an impasse: a historical moment in which the exercise of political power lacks ideological justification. In consequence, the personality of the leader, his convictions and beliefs, assumes ever greater importance. And with this, the risk, indeed, the necessity of hypocrisy grows ever greater. Hence his conclusion: ‘What matters is not whether liberals are worse than they would like to appear, but whether they can be honest with themselves about the gaps that are bound to exist between the masks of politics and what lies behind those masks.’

There are ‘no simple solutions’ he contends throughout his concluding remarks. But such a reckoning with the ‘complexity’ of political reality all too easily becomes reconciliation. Like the anti-hypocritical hypocrites he lambasts, Runciman risks succumbing to a brand of anti-cynical cynicism, a wilful embrace of the ‘the democratic imperfections’ of the present, for fear of revisiting the authoritarian horrors of the past.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Political Hypocrisy: The Mask of Power from Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond, by David Runciman, is published by Princeton University Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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