October 4, 2009

Hobbes Matters

As the 2010 midterm elections approach and the Public Option goes under, the hope many of us once had that significant political change could be generated from within existing institutional regimes and procedures has been fading fast. The histrionics of the rabid right coupled with the false promises and hypocrisies of the Democrats, as well as the subsequent tempering of Obama’s base, can certainly also be understood in terms of the further coalescence and tightening of the two parties into one plutocratic-corporatist-state-financed monopoly on the political arena. Thus we can wonder whether “progressives” will resort yet again to the “lesser of two evils” to chasten anyone who refuses to spit out the party-line of the Dems during upcoming elections when all intelligent indicators tell us that the GOP and the Dems are both failing – and that the inverse of their hackneyed meme… the evil of two lessers, is actually far more suitable.

Since Americans typically pride themselves on the capacity for free choice, (whether it be of political candidates, insurance providers, or soda,) the question as to what happens when the differences themselves lose meaning can be difficult to confront. As the scope for difference, diversity, distinction, and democratic politics becomes too myopic and trivial to present any meaningful understanding of even having a choice we must seriously question the nature of those choices, in this case the legitimacy of our elections. Simply put, surrendering my vote to a candidate I believe will do little to improve my neighborhood, family, workplace, or my own life but who I also suspect is “the lesser evil” when compared to a psychopath is an act remarkably parallel to surrendering my wallet or body to someone holding a gun to my head. If contemplating either of these scenarios is too much to bear we could just grin and bear it again by accepting our options, or just lower our expectations ever more by just staying home on election day. Congressional districts are heavily gerrymandered anyway so that the vast majority of elections are slam-dunks where challengers have little – if any – chance of winning.

Enter Thomas Hobbes. The argument for the political need to simply shut up and assent to the de facto political power to attain the humble rewards of security, stability, and peace can be traced to Hobbes’ aversion to political debate. For Hobbes, obedience to an absolute as well as arbitrary state power may be “inconvenient” but it was necessary nonetheless, and infinitely more preferable to allowing subjects the freedom to resist – or even question and thus “distract” – the sovereign. Indeed there simply was no legitimate basis for disputing state power. Perhaps more disturbing, since high-falutin concepts like justice, morality, and right and wrong were, according to Hobbes, mere words, the sovereign power, and those who represented it, also had ultimate authority over the interpretation of “any book whatsoever,” including Scripture, regardless of what subjects may privately believe – and could thereby justifiably interpret and impose that meaning as law. “Tyranny” itself, concluded Hobbes, was simply a word connoting sovereignty disliked.

Surely, for Hobbes, the responsibility of the sovereign included protecting subjects from international hostilities as well as from each other; otherwise individuals were “by nature” free to resist. It was also in the sovereign’s interest to protect subjects since they not only provided an important source of revenue and booty but made his “eminence” possible by virtue of their worship. Nonetheless, they could not oppose his demands or stray from the parameters and conditions he determined for civil society and political peace.

Corey Robin, Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College, CUNY, points out in “The First Counter-revolutionary,” appearing in The Nation, (9/30/ 2009,) that Hobbes’ “seeming indifference to the identity of the sovereign,” no matter who happens to occupy the office, no matter what it wills or enacts, became fodder for critics, from Catholics to republicans, democrats to royalists. “Freedom,” for Hobbes, writes Robin, “is dependent on the presence of government but not on the form that government takes; whether we live under a king, a republic or a democracy does not change the quantity or quality of the freedom we enjoy.” Hobbes was therefore a “counter-revolutionary” because he “shredded long standing alliances” entrenched in political history and Natural Law, and mobilized the very kinds of conditions and subjectivities actually antithetical to conservative politics precisely in order to humble them in a radically modern way. Hobbes was not merely a theorist of post-Westphalian Europe and the construction of the modern state but a hyper-modernist who employed various scientific methods, (nominalism and geometry perhaps most importantly,) to theorize the dynamics of modern revolutionary politics for centuries to come.

Hobbes earned his “counter-revolutionary” cred, according to Robin, by seamlessly connecting political freedom with absolute political subjugation. As he wrote famously in Leviathan, “fear and liberty are consistent, as when a man who throweth his goods into the sea for fear the ship should sink doth it nevertheless very willingly…” It would thus be nonsensical to speak of being coerced or manipulated into acting against your own will since the will behind individual action is always revealed by the action itself. The will to obey is therefore, for Hobbes, an act of freedom; and the law simply enables individuals to “conform” their wills by no uncertain means, i.e., by the threat of punishment or some unforeseeable injury. Hobbes’s main point was that it was only by virtue of “consent” – even when based in fear, coercion, or disinterest – that obedience to power coincides with “natural liberty.” (Interestingly, however, Robin notes that Hobbes also insisted that submission to the wills of other men, even when we assent to their authority, entails a fundamental loss of liberty, and is thus substantially different from freedom when political authority is lacking. Indeed the freedom experienced in Hobbes’ infamous “war of all against all” seems both quantitatively and qualitatively different than the freedom experienced in the Hobbesian Commonwealth: there is more fear, more uncertainty, and more violence when the Commonwealth implodes.)

Hobbes has always been an important figure in liberal political theory; Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt knew it as did Hannah Arendt and CB MacPherson. For Robin, Hobbesian political subjects enjoy certain freedoms, including, as Hobbes put it, “the Liberty to buy, and sell, and otherwise contract with one another; to choose their own abode, their own diet, their own trade of life, and institute their children as they themselves think fit; and the like.” It was this understanding of freedom, as Arendt reminded us, that enabled liberals – especially post-totalitarian liberals – to savor a distinction between politics and freedom as well as the freedom from politics. For Robin, this “negative liberty” to move and act unhindered by external actors or objects, (“doing what I want,”) is not at all incompatible with state power – whether as the minimal state which acts to guarantee the minimal conditions of security and order for the freedom of movement, or as a more authoritarian actor involved in the affairs and lives of subjects. Here Robin invokes Milton Freidman and “the Chicago boys” of twentieth century glibertarian economics as bedfellows to Pinochet. “Assuming an all-too-easy congruence between capitalism and democracy,” Robin writes at the close of the article, “the libertarian overlooks just how much coercion is required to make citizens who will use their freedom responsibly and not ask the state to alleviate their distress.” When Robin prods readers in his closing remarks to consider the case of liberal democrats he slips in, albeit too cryptically, “though it may scandalize the bien-pensant of the center-left to hear this, their soft liberalism owes a great deal more to the spirit of Hobbesian counter-revolution than they realize.” In this respect, Hobbes’ political project would neither be at odds with twentieth century attempts to liberate ordinary citizens from various forms of discrimination, exploitation, or dependence. Indeed Hobbes wanted to convince us that the absolute and arbitrary power of monarchs – “tyrants” even – is no less worthy of the designation legitimacy than the freest and most democratic states, and that our state of political dependence – and our paltry capacity for action it affords us (no matter how much we may have to grin and bear it) – is hardly slavish and hardly destructive but truly free.

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