To dub Hobbes a conservative thinker is, in a manner of speaking, a misnomer, a modern-day projection which makes sense only once we adopt modern-day political categories which were hardly appropriate or even in use in Hobbes’ own time. And when examined through the lens of his own time, Hobbes comes across as a revolutionary thinker. He’s revolutionary for having foreseen, amidst what was still by and large a feudal society, the market’s operations as setting the tone for all future relations among the members of the commonwealth.
Unlike Adam Smith, however, for whom the formation or the existence of the commonwealth as a political entity was unproblematic, in the workings of the invisible hand and the unfolding laissez-faire mode of social relations, Hobbes saw a unique opportunity to anchor the state as the supreme political institution for all times.
Through his ingenious concept of political obligation, Hobbes establishes the supremacy of the state in terms of the consenting subject:
- Market relations make everyone equally insecure and subject to a power grab by any one individual or group of individuals.
- Therefore, it is in everyone’s interest to relinquish their God-given sovereignty by vesting the same, both individually and collectively, in the state.
- This act of consent — a“social contract” — constitutes a political obligation on the part of the consenting subjects to abide by the dictates of the state.
Hobbes was thus the first in the long line of modern-day theorists to advocate what has come to be known as statism. (“Statism” means the state’s unchallenged authority as the supreme political institution, irrespective of the personalities involved or the peculiarities of the officeholders, be they kings, the king’s men, or the elected officials.) And Hobbes’ justification was that only the state offered everyone the requisite measure of protection not only from one another but, just as importantly, from themselves: it protected the individual from the vagaries of human nature.
How does one move from Hobbes’s grand schema to what passes nowadays for the conservative or liberal viewpoint?
Well, one point of departure is Edmund Burke, his famous treatise against the excesses of the French Revolution being a case in point: a conservative view is always a form of reaction, and Burke’s pamphlet fits the bill to a T. Or to reach further back, we could point to the ideas of the French Enlightenment thinkers, the ideas which paved the way to the French Revolution.
In this respect, Hayek may have been right to single out Rousseau as the object of his venom. Where he was wrong, however, was in crediting the latter with socialist leanings and mindset. And so, in a blatant attempt to discredit liberalism by arguing for such a linkage, Hayek had only discredited himself.
If Burke is the presumptive father of modern-day conservatism, John Stuart Mill represents the alternative viewpoint. And if we disregard here Mill’s utilitarian streak, one can point to some of his polemical writings concerning the flagrant abuses in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. What stands out, in particular, is Mill’s uncompromising stance against child labor practices of the day, his steadfast support for worker unions, and his efforts to extend the original franchise. We can trace the entire liberal/socialist tradition of post-industrial England to these very efforts.
And here we see liberalism on the march, as it were, reacting in the first instance to the excesses of the Age of Faith and inaugurating in its stead the Age of Reason; and in the second, to intolerable conditions which accompanied the initial stages of industrialization (whereas conservatism appears content to react back).
Perhaps this is the proper dynamics in that it captures the correct sequence of historical events, modern or ancient, the unfolding of human progress throughout history: while liberal attitudes and mindset are always in the lead, clamoring for change, conservatism, by contrast, tends to be associated with a voice of reaction.
Of course, in the larger, more comprehensive sense, conservatism is always understood to stand for upholding the status quo, which usually means the established order that favors the ruling class. And in that, extended sense of the term, John Locke was a conservative, as were our founding fathers, for having set land ownership as one of the prerequisites for the political franchise, let alone for having supported the institution of slavery.
By the same token, Hobbes wasn’t a conservative even though property ownership was one of the cornerstones of his political schema: for Hobbes, property and possessions meant power; and the human desire for amassing either wasn’t connoting any kind of value for him, merely a fact of life.
(Likewise with modern-day conservationists, whether concerning energy or environment. It’s somewhat ironic that those who most proudly lay claim to the title are more bent on destroying the environment for the sake of profit than those who are keen on preserving it. Yet it’s the latter who are the despised liberals. It’s all a matter of values.
If John Stuart Mill or the Encyclopedists accurately represent the beginnings of the modern liberal tradition, then we wouldn’t be too far off to say that liberalism is an offshoot of an impulse, a noblest impulse at that.
Defending the underdog, the oppressed, the heavy-burdened, and the heavy-laden? – what could be finer than that? In fact, underneath the entire liberal tradition, there runs the undercurrent of a theme, the theme of empathy, the latent leitmotif. If not always translatable to direct identification, at the very least, it connotes the taking of a stand, espousing a cause, fighting for justice. Again, no human emotion could be nobler or more satisfying.
The question we must therefore ask: What had become of this impulse? Why has a political philosophy that’s clearly an expression of it, both in terms of intent and the sought-after results, become bankrupt? What had led to its eventual change of status from a vibrant political philosophy to mere ideology
In the course of these essays, I alluded to several historical developments that were hardly foreseen by the chief architects of the modern state, both in the old world and the new. These developments have forever changed the contours and the institution’s general complexion that arose in the wake of the old and crumbling Western monarchies — constitutional as they may have been — the modern-day statehood.
I’m referring here to developments that culminated in establishing the universal franchise as de rigueur, a virtual standard for any self-respecting modern state with any pretensions to being democratic, the most important developments of them all, that is, including the resulting fallout. And what spearheaded this push towards the universal franchise and all it had come to entail was the concept of rights: the right to vote, the right to assemble, the right to be treated with dignity irrespective of race, ethnic origin, or gender; in short, both civic and civil rights, the former, namely, citizen’s rights, paving the way for the latter. And while ’tis true that none of these gains would be won without bitter struggle, it’s also true that none would have been possible or conceivable without rights spearheading it and serving as the banner.
Consequently, rights emerge as the central concept of political philosophy known as liberalism, as the cornerstone of that philosophy, its crowning achievement, and its claim to glory. Without rights or any meaningful talk of rights, liberalism would be bereft of its core meaning, an empty shell with neither rhyme nor reason. That’s why its enemies are so intent of late on replacing that language with talk of entitlements; it’s certainly not the same.
So once again, we must ask: How did liberalism manage to squander the superior position it once had and relinquish the high ground? What had become of its once noble impulse and follow-through, its moral tour de force? By all reasonable accounts, it should have continued unchallenged, a vibrant political philosophy bar none, a philosophy besides which had amassed an impressive record, unmatched by any other in history, in the ceaseless human struggle for dignity and freedom from oppression. How come this once ultra-revolutionary thought-belief-value system — the hope of humankind — had become bankrupt? For surely, it’s no longer a political philosophy one could live by but an apology; not a system of knowledge or a means of understanding human events, political or otherwise, but ideology; not a living reality but a myth!
I’ve already alluded to some of the reasons, but it bears repeating until it sinks in. With winning universal franchise and other kinds of rights, it became incumbent upon the state, soon to become a liberal, full-fledged welfare state, to enforce those rights, at least de jure if not de facto. Thus, the state had become the ultimate guarantor of those rights, there being nothing else to take its place, no other institution or entity that could discharge the duty of enforcement.
As a result, liberalism had come to depend on the state as the ultimate instrumentality. The state had become indispensable not only from the standpoint of preserving the gains already won but also of advancing its progressive agenda. Thus, its fate, outreach, general well- or ill-being. have all become intricately connected to the affairs of the state. In a nutshell, liberalism ended up advocating statism, had become synonymous with it. Only in the state and its actions could liberalism see any answer or the solution.
But therein lies the rub. While it’s conceivable that under the most ideal of circumstances, the state could be looked upon through such rose-colored glasses and discharge its most solemn duty — which is to act in the interest of justice for all — such circumstances are certainly not in effect today. Indeed, it’s very doubtful they ever were.
Only a global kind of empire, such as Alexander the Great had once envisaged, would be capable of acting so, there being no conceivable threat to it from without or from within. But the truth of the matter is, no modern state, however powerful, even if it’s an acclaimed superpower, is that independent. In the interest of their survival, they’re all forced to be jockeying for position and comparative advantage. A fact of life, you may say.
All of which makes it impossible for a state, any state, to act as it should, as it ought to, even as it might wish to behave. Its ability to act, let alone to act judiciously, is thereby severely impaired by it having to tend to its interests. Thus, for the sake of those interests, the state is forced to support the ruling class, capitalism, private property, whatever it takes, and whatever else it entails, while paying lip service to justice and playing both ends against the middle.
Another fact of life!
Therein, I say, lies the failure of liberalism and its legacy, the once vibrant political philosophy, the gains already won and its promise, so much promise. And this failure comes down to its intricate connection to the affairs of the state: as the state goes, so does liberalism, which well nigh strips liberalism off its moral force, its forte, and disables it from voicing a moral critique of the system in place (if for no other reason than the state itself is immoral).
Macpherson says pretty much the same thing, albeit without the added benefit of the anarchistic thesis:
The dilemma of modern liberal-democratic theory is now apparent: it must continue to use the assumptions of possessive individualism, at a time when the structure of market society no longer provides the necessary conditions for deducing a valid theory of political obligation from those assumptions. Liberal theory must continue to use the assumptions of possessive individualism because they are factually accurate for our possessive market societies. Their factual accuracy has already been noticed, but the point will bear repetition. The individual in market society is human as proprietor of his own person. However much he may wish it to be otherwise, his humanity does depend on his freedom from any but self-interested contractual relations with others. His society does consist of a series of market relations. Because the assumptions are factually accurate, they cannot be dropped from a justificatory theory. But the maturing of market society has cancelled that cohesion, among all those with a political voice, which is a prerequisite for the deduction of obligation to a liberal state from possessive individualist assumptions. No way out of the dilemma is to be found by rejecting those assumptions while not rejecting market society, as so many theorists from John Stuart Mill to our own time have done on the ground that the assumptions are morally offensive. If they are now morally offensive they are none the less still factually accurate for our possessive market societies. The dilemma remains. Either we reject possessive individualist assumptions, in which case our theory is unrealistic, or we retain them, in which case we cannot get a valid theory of obligation. It follows that we cannot now expect a valid theory of obligation to a liberal-democratic [and I would add “immoral”] state in a possessive market society (275).
And what of “rights,” the once central concept and heart of the liberal-democratic theory? Must we abandon it also?
The first thing to say is that just like justice, alas, much more so than in the case of justice, the concept of rights is context-dependent. In other words, it wouldn’t make much sense to talk of rights in a truly egalitarian or classless society: it’s only a society which is lacking in the aforementioned respects that provides the proper occasion for any meaningful talk about rights. Only an imperfect society legitimizes such a talk.
I rest my case.