What’s the connection between Hobbes’ or Locke’s depiction of market relation — soon to emerge as the dominant mode of relations between individuals — and their political theory? How does the “self-ownership” postulate figure in all this? We may grant that said postulate may be deemed essential in depicting pure or ideal market conditions, but what does it have to do with politics?
Prof. Balibar, the author of the seminal article in Part I of this series, poses this question in slightly different terms. He reminds us that
“in the sociological tradition, it was never resolved whether possessive individualism represented a general structure of social organization which had triumphed under certain historical conditions, or whether it was typical only of a specific realm of human behavior, e.g., the economic realm, where the generalization of market institutions imposed the anthropological figure of homo oeconomicus.”
Be that as it may, we can be sure of the underlying intention, which was to merge both the economic and political behavior to form an integral whole.
It should be apparent by now that in asking such questions, we’re not asking about the actual conditions which happened to prevail or failed to prevail in Locke’s or Hobbes’ time. The fact that property requirements restricted the original franchise is a contingent truth and of no theoretical, only empirical interest (as the eventual lifting of those restrictions, resulting in the universal franchise, has undoubtedly proved).
Indeed, even with a universal franchise in place, the proposition that the propertied class continued to exercise its dominance when it came to running the affairs of the commonwealth, even if true, is likewise only of empirical, not theoretical, import. That wasn’t the point. The object was to establish the need for a sovereign as a necessary condition for a viable and lasting commonwealth; part of that project entailed deducing the concept of political obligation on the part of the subject.
In Hobbes’ case, that obligation had to be absolute and irrevocable. And he based it on the assumption that all were equally insecure in that “if there were no [one] power able to overawe them all, their lives would necessarily be miserable and insecure in the utmost degree.”
(This followed from Hobbes’ fundamental premise that all men, whether by natural inclination or the force of circumstance, were equally desirous of amassing ever more power over others.)
There was also a postulate stating that, regardless of circumstances, “men necessarily seek to live, and to live commodiously.” And given the “rationality” assumption, Hobbes concluded that (rational) men “must make, or act as if they had made, a covenant with each other by which they all simultaneously transfer to some man or body of men the rights they would have to protect themselves if there were no common power to protect them.”
That’s, in essence, the bottom line of any social contract brand of political theory: it concerns the hypothetical transfer of the appropriate rights (mainly those having to do with protecting oneself, including one’s property) to another, which creates an obligation to the sovereign.
As stated, Hobbes’ was an extreme version. Prof Balibar puts it thus:
there are essential reasons why Hobbes would absolutely refuse the notion of “self-ownership” as a political notion – since it would establish competing authorities and obligations – and therefore also as a philosophical or anthropological one.
Thus, we see that it was Locke, not Hobbes, who had allowed for what we recognize today as factional and confrontational politics, along with the remote possibility of overthrowing the government, in the event the government (for one reason or another) doesn’t deliver. No wonder it was Locke rather than Hobbes, who had become the presumptive father of the liberal theory. It stands to reason that even the ruling class, not unlike the nobility of old, would like to reserve for itself the ultimate right to depose the sovereign (if and when need be).
But popular opinion be damned, and general sentiment and all appearances to the contrary, too. Each is a poor index of the underlying reality. Hobbes may have been a purist compared to Locke, but he did capture better than anyone the tenor of our times: it’s all about statism, the heart of the liberal theory! By way of consolation, let me state that our conservative brethren are in the same boat, too.
In retrospect, if Locke’s version of liberalism was lukewarm, something we can vaguely imagine we could live with, Hobbes’s was hardcore.