Back to Hobbes?

THOMAS HOBBES’ Leviathan, published in 1651, famously postulated that a strong central government was necessary to suppress human inborn cruelty, thereby making life among humans liveable, instead of “nasty, brutish, and short” as it would otherwise be. Every man or woman was up in arms against every other man and woman. Every other was an already unmasked enemy or an enemy yet to be unmasked. Antennae had to be stretched and tuned at all directions. Permanently. Safety was a bluff. A moment of tranquillity was the enemy’s ploy meant to put vigilance to a nap. Were the Hobbesian pre-state creatures in possession of powder, they would’ve surely keep it dry.

Yet today many believe that human endemic aggressiveness and propensity to violence has been anything but mitigated by strong central governments, let alone extinguished; they are alive and always ready to be kicking at a moment’s notice, or indeed without any notice at all.

Illustration by Tania Advani |

The right to draw the line between legitimate and illegitimate, allowed and prohibited, legal and criminal, tolerated and intolerable coercion is the principal stake in many contemporary power struggles. Possession of such a right is, after all, the defining feature of power—while the capability of using that right and rendering its use binding for others is the defining trait of domination. Establishing and executing that right has been viewed since Leviathan as the domain of politics; a prerogative of, and a task accomplished by, the government standing for the political body. That view has been closer to our time emphatically reiterated and extensively argued by Max Weber (in his definition of the political state by its monopoly of the means—and presumably the use—of coercion), acquiring since an all-but-canonical status in social-political scholarship. Though, as Leo Strauss warned at the threshold of our liquid-modern era, on the occasion of unravelling the precepts of historicist approach to human condition:

There always have been and there always will be surprising, wholly unexpected, changes of outlook which radically modify the meaning of all previously acquired knowledge. No view of the whole, and in particular no view of the whole of human life, can claim to be final and universally valid. Every doctrine, however seemingly final, will be superseded sooner or later by another doctrine. . . . All human thought depends on fate, on something that thought cannot master and whose workings it cannot anticipate . . . . It is due to fate that the essential dependence of thought on fate is realized now, and was not realized in earlier times.1

Two previously voiced, authoritative and seminal warnings jump to mind as laying the groundwork for Strauss’ reasoning: Hegel’s of the owl of Minerva that spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk, and Marx’s of humans being the makers of history albeit on conditions not of their choice. Between themselves, those three warnings/recommendations justify a thorough revision of Hobbes’ vision of the State as the guarantor of its wards’ security and their sole chance of defense against their intrinsic aggressiveness and so of protection from violence. They even suggest the possibility of listing the State, once described as the prime (or even as much as the only) warrant of human security and insurance against violence, among the prime factors, causes, and operators of the currently prevailing ambiance of un-safety and vulnerability to violence. One of today’s foremost, sharpest and most outspoken socio-cultural critics, Henry A. Giroux—author of America’s Addiction to Terrorism—goes as far as concluding:

Built into the system is a kind of systemic violence that’s destroying the planet, all sense of public good and democracy—and it controls itself no longer by ideology, but by the rise of a punishing state—where everything is increasingly criminalized because it offers a threat to the financial elite and the control they have over the country . . . Neoliberalism injects violence into our lives, and fear into our politics.2

I would add “and vice versa: violence in politics, and fear into our lives.” And when saying “ours,” I have in mind not just those who reside in the ruins of the fallen states—those whose presence in ever nearer proximity to our homes as all-too-visible-and-tangible points of reference causes us for the time being to stifle/suspend/repress the horrifying suspicion of the commonality, and growing similarity, of our respective fates. I have in mind: cherishing and enjoying day in, day out, the comforts of “law and order” settings, though in the moments of clarity unable to prevent such suspicion to emerge from its exile to the depths of the unconscious.

In a nutshell: by a long line of unanticipated turns of fate the Leviathan has become insolvent—unable to pay interest on the credit of trust that the seekers of security, on Hobbes’ advice, used to invest in its assumed—genuine or putative—powers. On more and more occasions it shows itself incapable to render binding and un-encroachable the line it draws between legitimate and illegitimate violence. It has lost, moreover, its assumed and granted monopoly on drawing such a line—in any but a purely formal sense. The lines it still continues, by inertia, to mark and attempt to fortify, are invariably contested in both theory and practice. Worse still: having put the task of repossessing its lost monopoly on violence in the center of its concerns and at the top of its raisons d’être, it found itself pushed/forced/obliged, but also chose to be inspired, to subordinate all the rest of its extant duties to that purpose; if not to abandoning them altogether through the ploy of washing its own hands of the responsibility for the performance and its results: a subterfuge of outsourcing them by contracting out or subsidiarizing. In consequence of all such departures, the State has turned for all practical intents and purposes from the role of a defender and guardian of security to that of one (though perhaps the most effective) among the many agents cooperating in raising insecurity to the rank of permanent human condition.

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Source Citation

Tikkun 2017 Volume 32, Number 1: 24-29


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