A couple of months ago I saw this book next to me, being read by my co-religionist during the Shabbat morning service. The title caught my eye, and I know how talented Professor Moshe Halbertal is. I of course went (after Shabbat) to the Book Depository and ordered ”The Beginning of Politics.”
Although the book is a political reading of the Book of Samuel, and its main characters are Samuel the prophet and the kings Saul and David, the lessons are relevant in every context that power is sought and exercised.
We are in full election season here in Israel, and thankfully I finished this just in time to make my decision.
The book was an excellent read and considering it’s not a novel it was riveting. Totally readable and completely accessible. I think that having completed Halbertal’s analysis I will now have to go back and read Samuel again, although once seen, there are things that cannot be unseen.
Here are some of my insights:
- It doesn’t matter whether you seek power and achieve it (David), or shun power and end up in a position to achieve it (Saul). Once you are there the temptation to use it, not for the common good, but to retain power (and indeed decide to whom to transfer power) becomes (almost) irresistible.
- We are used to saying that for those in power the end justifies the means. Halbertal reminds us that sometimes we use the means for ends, and ends as means. Our key characters abuse many things of great intrinsic importance and instrumentalise them for political gain (love, friendship, loyalty etc).
- It is almost impossible for the citizens to know when the ruler is speaking or acting on the basis of morality or values or for the purposes of realpolitik. In many cases it could be both. In the worst case the ruler no longer knows the difference.
- Those in power will often use others to execute (sometimes literally) the heinous acts on their behalf. Plausible deniability was not invented in the 20th Century.
- This leads to some unforeseen outcomes – those that we outsource the dirty work to, can often take the orders and do worse than we want. The outcome can sometimes be horrific.
- Those closest to power who are the emissaries of that power know the worst of those who hold power and often use it to their advantage.
- In the end what goes around comes around.
- Politics in the Western world seems to be in crisis, but is still a lot less violent than its biblical forebears.
Halbertal’s read of the book of Samuel is not an attempt to discredit politics or suggest that one system is inherently better than another, but simply to say that power and politics have inherently problematic pitfalls, is as old as the hills, and can afflict the greatest of leaders.
It’s seems that there is nothing new under the sun.
I have made my decision as to whom to vote for on Tuesday, and am under no illusions that the risk of power falling into the wrong hands is not about one leader being prone to abusing that power, whereas others do not, but that all leaders have the same human challenges around the use of power to protect their own position, instead of for the good of the citizens.
It also made me consider again the importance of the modern separation of powers as part of our democratic system. Sometimes this separation is itself imperfect or out of balance (eg. current debate in Israel on whether the judiciary has garnered too much power over the executive and legislative branches of government). Moderating the power democratically handed to an individual is crucial, as without checks and balances – we will more likely see the age-old dangers of power and sovereignty being misused, or abused.