A Short Rebuttal of Hobbes
Freedom, Democracy and the Delusions of Power
For all his faults and the faults of the endeavour he was involved with, Jefferson was right on the essential point, in terms of political theory, which is the rebuttal that lays waste to Hobbes, the fantasy which still imprisons our minds and world, and that is: “If you can’t trust men to govern themselves, how can you trust them to govern others?”
Here is a succinct critique of the Hobbesian confusion over power in society, which still affects our world profoundly and pervasively, and from which we had best awaken, and quickly. Power games are nothing new. They are millennia old. It is imperative that we understand them, particularly now, as old patterns are morphing into new and darker guises.
Hobbes wrote nearly 400 years ago, around the time of the English Revolution, well before anthropology was born as an academic discipline, so he might be forgiven for his complete lack of understanding of human society, but his prejudices have become ours, his mistake our mistake, his confusion our own, and we are forced to deal with him, jaundiced, cynical and pathetic as his views may be. He wrote that life before civilization was “nasty, brutish and short” – something he surmised, and which anthropology has now thoroughly disproven, but the premise of his entire political philosophy none the less. He argued that human beings need a strong and powerful central authority to keep them from tearing each others’ throats out. Just who this authority might be, considering he did not trust people with power, was the lunacy to which Jefferson alluded. Moreover, it has been the rise of hierarchical power structrues in society that has brought unending war, conflict and systemic violence, not its absence, as the anthropological evidence now has shown. Still, we must deal with Hobbes, though we should have listen more attentively to Jefferson, and put this deluded figure on a dusty shelf where he belongs, along with his tragic ideas. Hobbes felt that if there were not a strong central authority powerfully constraining human beings, then we would instantly return to barbarism and a “war of all against all.” His fearful assumption and resulting notions of power in society have since pervaded all of Western society, and with the globalization of Western media, culture, and neoliberal political ideology and economics, Hobbes’ delusions have now pervaded most of the world. This specter haunting the world must be put to rest once and for all.
The core premise that I am addressing, the premise that you can’t trust human beings, is the root of the Hobbsian fallacy. There are strong reasons to disagree with this premise, and I do, but let’s accept it for the moment for the sake of argument. Assuming, for the moment, that you can’t trust people, who then, do you propose to govern people? The argument put forth by Hobbes, and accepted by so many scholars, politicians and business men, though it is clearly ridiculous, is this. You say you don’t trust people, therefore you give some people enormous power. This should strike us as patently absurd, if not simply delusional. If you do not trust people with a little power, the power over their own lives, then why would you entrust them with overwhelming great power? Is not Lord Acton more sensible here? “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I think there is a great deal of confusion surrounding the issues of power in society, and the implications – as we have seen in Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, China, Russia, Cambodia, and across the “Third World” in so many brutal, soulless, self-serving dictatorships – are extreme.
It seems to me that if you are afraid of people, if you take it as a basic assumption that you cannot trust people, then you have basically two choices – assuming there is no place to go to get away from people, or that you choose not to do so.
One choice, is the path of Hobbes: seek, cozy up to, or align yourself with some great power, in order to feel safe(r). But as we saw with Stalin, to name just one example, cozying up to power is no guarantee of protection, and as we see in all dictatorships or tyrannical regimes, of either right or left, seeking the protection of such powers leaves one in great danger from the very same powers. And seeking power oneself, when it is not a cozying up as a courtesan underling, or a mousy tugging at the coat tail for protection from above; when it is a grasping at the highest level of power, ie: becoming top dog oneself, this too is fraught with the greatest of danger, both from external and internal threats. The latter course leads generally to a life of paranoia, as it is always a reality that such power is impossible to guarantee, and even powerful emperors and empires fall to dust, invariably.
Therefore, the three variations on the first strategy – seek, serve/cozy up to, or align with a great power, is totally unreliable, and cannot ensure safety – far from it. In fact, this strategy opens the doors to even greater dangers.
The alternative to looking to power – your own or someone else’s – to protect oneself, which is the essence of the Hobbesian hypnosis, or delusion, is to disarm – both oneself and others. This is what Jefferson aimed to do, I would say. And this is the basic premise of classical liberal democracy. (Jefferson was simply more coherent and consistent with regard to such views than many others at the time or since – though he too had his contradictions.)
To make an analogy: if you are afraid of people, you can get a gun – better yet, become a mob boss, a big gun – or you can lick the boots of the mob boss who has the guns, hoping he’ll protect you, and won’t get angry for some unforeseen reason one day and feed you to his dog. This is basically the power-seeking/power cozying-up/protect me mister powerful man set of patterns. Become a mob boss, or lick the boots, or whatever else is required, of the mob boss, and hope this strategy keeps you safe. It doesn’t. And moreover, it should be repulsive to anyone to do either.
The alternative to becoming a mob boss, or licking the boots of the mob boss, is to eliminate the mob bosses – to disarm the threat. This is the basic gist of constitutional democracy, when intelligently applied, and particularly to that more robust form of constitutional democracy which is Jeffersonian democracy. Do not seek to gather power or align with centers of power, but rather, seek to distribute power and empower all, so that none have such excessive power that it could easily be abused.
To make another analogy, in a world where you perceive danger everywhere, as Hobbes did, you can start an arms race, hoping that great power will protect you, or you can work toward mutual disarmament. The former path is the one we have been on for some millennia now, and it has been a path of disaster. At this time, our weapons have grown so powerful that to continue down this path is a virtual guarantee of self-annihilation. The path of mutual disarmament is now the only viable path for human survival. This applies not only to the obvious aspects of disarmament, such as the universal elimination of all weapons of mass destruction, but to the more essential point of dissolving excessive concentrations of power in society, distributing power more broadly, and empowering all in equality, so that none have the means to terrorize or oppress others. Jefferson thus was far more sensible, more rational, and simply more sane than Hobbes.
Ultimately, the kind of elitist thinking which Plato and Hobbes represent, forms the basis of both feudal and fascist orders. Liberal democracy is antithetical to such notions, and libertarianism – left libertarianism, to be clear – is the most consistent application of this line of thinking which rejects elitist and authoritarian social structures. This is where Jefferson, for example, intersects with Chomsky. Jefferson understood the need to keep power decentralized politically in order to prevent its abuse, and understood equally well the need to place firm checks and limits on the powers of corporations, and what he called “the new monied aristocracy.” Jefferson, were he alive today, would be aligned with the libertarian left.
Chomsky put it remarkably succinctly when he said, ultimately, “you’re either an aristocrat or a democrat.” In other words, you either believe in rule by an elite, or you believe in rule by the people. The monarchies and aristocracies of feudal times were forms of elitist rule. The Caesars and Pharaohs and Babylonian kings represented forms of elitist rule. The theocracies of the Ayatollah Khomeini or the Taliban were forms of elitist rule. The reign of local thugs and war lords in parts of Africa is a form of elitist rule. The regimes of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Mussolini and Hitler were forms of elitist rule. And the emerging de facto world government, as the leading business journal, the Financial Times calls it, seated in Davos, Switzerland, is of course another form of elitist rule. All of these are antithetical to democracy, antithetical to freedom, antithetical to human rights, and antithetical to human dignity. They are a crude form of barbarism, masking itself, as always, as the salvation of the world. And there is now a powerful and dominant faction of the world’s business elite who want to create a most thorough form of elitist and authoritarian rule. We should shudder, and of course, defeat all such adolescent and dangerous dreams of self-deification. It would be very unwise to think that such infantile grandiosity, delusions of grandeur, or fantasies of total power have gone away, are a thing of the past, or can be dismissed as minor concerns. There are always a few who dream of complete domination, and will go to the greatest of lengths to attain their goal.
Plato became disillusioned with democracy after the council of Athens sentenced his teacher, Socrates, to death. Famously, he advocated a society ruled by philosopher kings. It sounds good in principle, but in reality it has almost without exception turned into a nightmare. Elite rule has almost universally brought oppression, tyranny, irrationality, stupidity and destruction upon humanity – over and over again throughout five thousand years of recorded history. Shall we try again? Have we not repeated this pattern enough? At present, the global business elite is planning the same routine, once more, and working fiercely and consciously to create Plato’s dream. They have decided that they are the wise kings, and want a global rule, with them in full control. Sounds like a recipe for total disaster to me, as I’m sure it does to most people. Yet here we go again. If we do not oppose the current trend, that is, if we do not reclaim our power, we will have a global feudal fascist order, and soon.
It is time we dispensed with our Hobbesian delusions, and decentralized power. Authentic democracy, freedom, human rights, and even human survival, now requires mutual empowerment and the dissolution of excessive concentrations of power in society. This would mean greater power for individuals, families, communities, states and provinces, joined together in federations of shared power and mutual aid and protection; and diminished power for national governments and large corporations. It would require firstly, however, a dismantling or opting out of investor rights agreements which transfer real power to unaccountable and undemocratic transnational centers of power, namely the global business elite. NAFTA, CAFTA, FTAA, the WTO, IMF, World Bank and SPP all concentrate real power in society in the hands of a few international business elites, as does the current global monetary system. All of these therefore are anti-democratic and incompatible with a future of social justice, democracy or freedom.
In order to decentralize power and reduce the possibilities for power to be abused or become oppressive – as Jefferson advised and even urged – the power of the nation state and national democracies must first be strengthened however, for it is the power of the nation state and national democracies which are one of the powers potentially available to people to fend off and reverse the growing concentration of power in the hands of a global investment elite. To save democracy, the global business elite must first be put in check, their powers limited and rolled back to a level where they can no longer dominate national governments, communities and the lives of virtually all of humanity. Once this is accomplished, and it will be, then we can look to decentralizing power further, in order to take democracy and freedom to new levels of maturation and fullness. I think I’m safe in saying that three of the thinkers I respect most, Chomsky, Jefferson and Thoreau, would all agree on this. First reduce the power of the global business elite, and return power to national democracies. Then we can talk about a future of sanity, sustainability, justice and peace. Until then, we are on the road to serfdom and slavery, if not self-destruction. It is time to take the power back.
Thomas Paine was right. The central issues of power in society are not so very complicated. Ultimately, it is largely a matter of common sense. The primary obstacles are fear, disempowerment and illusion. The answers therefore are clear. They are courage, empowerment and a basic clarity of mind. These three elements are all within our reach.
The future is in our hands.
J. Todd Ring,
February 13, 2008
The Chalice and the Blade – Rianne Eisler
The Ecology of Freedom – Murray Bookchin
Mutual Aid – Petr Kropotkin
Escape from Freedom – Eric Fromm
The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude – Etienne de la Boitie
On Civil Disobedience – Henry David Thoreau
The Pedagogy of the Oppressed – Paulo Friere
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism – Max Weber
Powers and Prospects – Noam Chomsky
Year 501: The Conquest Continues – Chomsky
Necessary Illusions – Chomsky
Shock Doctrine – Naomi Klein
The End of America – Naomi Wolf
Trilateralism – Holy Sklar
The Collapse of Globalism – John Ralston Saul
The Great Turning – David C. Korten
This entry was posted on April 26, 2008 at 9:05 pm and is filed under anarchism, anthropology, civil liberties, class, corporate fascism, corporate rule, corporations, corporatism, corporatocracy, crisis of democracy, democracy, democratic deficit, empire, empowerment, fascism, freedom, geopolitics, globalism, globalization, Hobbes, human rights, imperialism, Jefferson, Kropotkin, libertarian, libertarian socialism, libertarianism, Mussolini, neoliberalism, philosophy, police state, political economy, political philosophy, political theory, politics, resources, social theory, sovereignty with tags Hobbes, Jefferson, political philosophy, political theory, politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.