We can state the central thesis underlying this series of essays as follows:
The emergence of what we recognize today as the modern liberal state can be traced to the political writings of Thomas Hobbes, with minor revisions here and there by other theorists, most notably John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I found it convenient, after C. B. Macpherson, to dub Hobbes’s political theory as a “theory of possessive individualism.”
“Possessive” is the operative term here, and it’s an apt one. It depicts the essence of present-day market relationships, whereby private property and limitless accumulation of wealth, including capital, serve as the cornerstone of the economic system in place. Capitalism would be inconceivable without either – if the commons were given their proper due.
It wasn’t always so. It wasn’t predominantly so, even in Hobbes’s own time. It was sufficiently so, however, for Hobbes to take notice.
It may be debatable whether the object of Hobbes’s remarks was politics or economics: it’s safe to assume; however, it was the former. What is indisputable is that the economic relations of his day, relations that were soon to permeate a full-blown capitalist system, served as the foundation.
Thus, a political system was born alongside the economic one, the latter serving as a model. Hobbes was the first theorist of note to have merged the seemingly disparate spheres of human activity into one integral whole. It was economics and economic relations that, according to Hobbes, defined the first principles of politics via his brand new conception of the human subject.
Hobbes was also the first in the long line of social-contract theorists. It, too, followed from his reconceptualization of the human subject. Since some were always propertied men, whereas others were not, it stood to reason that those who had anything to lose would form a protective agency, the state, whose primary purpose would be to protect their common interests.
The notion of the state, so construed, would be minimal (see Nozick, for example, Anarchy, State and Utopia), but more on that later. Suffice it to say, there were plenty enough men of goodwill and property to join forces, to protect each and everyone from theft, pilferage, or plain robbery.
It doesn’t matter whether Hobbes had envisaged so dire a situation in terms of dog-eat-dog, more appropriate perhaps to a situation in which men might so behave in the context of some hypothesized, pre-political community, before the inauguration of the state. All the evidence suggests that he had never considered a pre-political community in the first place.
Consequently, his was merely an abstraction from the existing socio-political relations, a thought experiment, an experiment in “what if.”
The same goes for Hobbes’ analysis and conclusion: Men have always tended to behave as if all were a party to a social contract. The object, again, wasn’t to establish any historical relationship or a necessity, only a logical one!
Other things followed, most importantly, perhaps, our political concepts, such as rights, freedom, and obligation: each received their particular coloring from Hobbes’s reconfiguring of the human subject, and that coloring, for the most part, remains.
Take our rights, for instance. For all the gains we’ve made in the area of civil rights or universal franchise, the concept is bound to function only as a reactive, remedial type of concept — always having to respond to, or to oppose, the state of oppression, never to eliminate it.
It’s likewise with the corresponding conception of freedom. And these are just some of the most positive of applications. In most commonplace, ordinary contexts, our rights come down to mere individual rights, the freedom to do as we damn please (so long we don’t trample on another person’s rights).
But that’s Hobbes’ legacy for you, the idea that freedom and rights are unconditional and (exclusively) proprietary to the individual; they constitute the very essence of what it means to be an individual. No thought whatever has been given to, no allowance of any kind made for, such things as public interest or the greater good. We’re asked to believe instead that no one owes anybody anything, that we’ve been put on Earth solely for our benefit and pleasure, to roam it like some aimless, thoughtless nomads, to pluck it at will and reap whatever rewards we can with not an iota of concern — each man, woman and child on their own and only for themselves. The fiction has been made real, and it lives amongst us.
I’m not against the idea of individual sovereignty, for sovereignty, properly speaking, is a kind of quality that can be attributed only to persons. All other forms derive their meaning only by extension — representation or delegation being the usual devices. And our Hobbesian subject is no exception, for she, too, had bequeathed her sovereignty, inalienable rights and all, for a price. It’s the concept of unconditional sovereignty concept that I object to, just as I object to the concept of unconditional right, unconditional freedom, and unconditional power.
Why? Because unconditional sovereignty, let’s face it, translates to arbitrary power. Not only is this a hopelessly unrealistic position, untrue to facts (unless we imagine ourselves gods), it’s also a dangerous one, for it makes us think and act as though we were omnipotent.
Once again, fiction is being represented here as fact.
I’ll tend to this “atomistic” picture of the Hobbesian individual at the end of this presentation. I’ll be relying on the maxim that the success or failure of any social or political theory must rise or fall with the philosophy of the subject. Make that subject fictitious, untrue to life, and for all intents and purposes, and you’ve dismantled the theory. (Of course, it’s not just the one-dimensional subject that makes for the weakest link in any political or social theory but the underlying concepts which, too, end up untrue to life, truncated, and one-dimensional.) It will remain my strategy, a strategy aimed at neutralizing Hobbes. Meanwhile, there are other concerns.
For one thing, I also asserted that Hobbes’s picture results in modern-day liberalism; secondly, that it results in statism. The first of the two claims is the more straightforward of the two if liberalism means a political philosophy whereby individual rights serve as the cornerstone, the primary postulate. And for all the nuance or fine-tuning one could affix to liberalism as a political philosophy or to the modern-day liberal state (if only as a historical form here and now), I remain convinced the definition captures the essence.
What about the connection to statism, though, an unexpected turn of events if we’re to take Hobbes’s pronouncements and postulates at face value? Well, this requires argumentation.
For starters, we may argue that the liberal solution consists by and large of positing the sovereign as having an ultimate say in all matters appertaining to conflict between private and public interests: moreover, that it’d been a natural progression on the part of statehood to assume that role and, in so doing, to gravitate towards statism. And here, we’d have to trace this progression through its many historical forms, from its initially benign conception as the minimal protection agency, operating as it were in a pure laissez-faire fashion, in a political, social, and economic environment, to culminate in a full-fledged welfare state eventually; the epitome of statism.
We must preface these remarks by saying this isn’t just a theoretical failure; it’s a practical failure as well. For example, one could imagine the idea of the sovereign under the most ideal of conditions, unencumbered by any concern other than tending to the pursuit of justice. That form of statism I could well understand.
We know, though, that’s not the case, that as a matter of practical necessity — foreign relations and competition on the international scene are the first things that come to mind here –sovereigns tend to behave no differently than individuals, lucid at times but on other occasions, quite irrational and given to bullying. It’s this ever-present irrationality of the state — grounded in the necessity, to be sure, but always liable to erupt whenever push comes to shove — that makes the modern sovereign fall short of the ideal and, whenever circumstances demand it, turn on its very citizens as well.
Indeed, that wasn’t part of the original conception of statehood and sovereignty as an all-comprehensive concept, the be-all and end-all political entity, perfect in every way — the idea that no sovereign ever could be, subject to external influences or pressures, or it wouldn’t be a sovereign at all. One can only dream here Alexander’s dream; meanwhile, the theory has been invalidated by practice.
Couple this now with the fact that the very conflict between private and public interests which the liberal theory posits, and which catapults the state as though the ultimate arbiter of all such disputes — again, not as part of the original conception but as one which has been annexed to it by unanticipated consequences and developments –and we’re beginning to see the many respects in which the liberal theory was bound to fail. It’s always been patchwork since Hobbes.
Hobbes’s initial propositions may still stand, individual rights (excepting those that have been bequeathed to the sovereign) being the most important. But surely, the very admission of public interests as possibly countervailing private interests must run counter to the spirit of Hobbes: it runs counter to the spirit of the liberal theory as originally conceived. If anything, it’s an admission of the theory’s abject failure.
One may only speculate here as to the reasons. I suspect that winning universal franchise played no small part in this (since it had brought all those who were initially disenfranchised into the political fray and, of necessity, expanded the scope of political dialogue to include hitherto unheard of horizons and vistas). But however that came about, the idea of public interest and public good has eventually come of age to become a permanent feature of the modern-day liberal state. Ever since, the state was obliged to respond by showing a more democratic face.
It’s an indisputable fact that liberal theory has been patchwork from day one, accounting for its uncanny longevity and staying power. It’s only by being able to adapt to new circumstances and developments that it remained the dominant political ideology of the day. And this makes it all the more dangerous for the fact, not less so.
Let’s face it. Liberalism is an attractive ideology insofar as it promises progress on economic and political fronts. Its influence, far from waining, appears to be spreading. And now that it had shown its true colors in the affluent West, it’s quickly gaining a foothold in China, once a bastion of anti-imperialist thinking. And the same goes for the developing countries of the Third World (all, if not most, run by self-proclaimed dictators, in case you haven’t noticed), from Arabia to Africa; in the name of democracy, human rights, and economic development. Never mind that it’s a pretext, an exercise in grand illusion. The important thing is, liberalism is on the march, and it must be stopped for it perpetuates a lie.
There’s nothing about liberalism that promotes real democracy; in fact, everything about it hinders it. Liberalism is based and thrives on conflict, mitigated by such notions as pluralism and tolerance. Democracy, by contrast, requires direct participation, mutual aid, and cooperation. Liberalism is an all-encompassing, global, and totalitarian system, no less totalitarian or imperialistic than socialism or fascism used to be. Democracy is first and foremost local, and only then spreading concentrically. Liberalism offers the illusion of freedom, democracy, real freedom.
Whatever the alleged association between the two, liberalism and democracy, it has always been faked and contrived, more on the order of make-believe than the facts. The connection between the two is neither conceptual nor empirical: it’s but an attempt at facsimile, a cheap facsimile, a play of the metaphor. Whatever semblance of democracy there may be to liberalism, it was smuggled in by the back door, as it were, via annexation. It’s not a part of the liberal theory proper, which, once again, confirms that the liberal theory but a patchwork
If this doesn’t amount to incoherence, I don’t know what does. But then again, liberalism isn’t a theory per se. It’s more like a state of mind, a program by the feebleminded, all those who have given up on hard thinking, an opiate. If I can puncture holes in it and show it to be inconsistent and delusional, so much the better, and this series of essays will not have been in vain.