Tuesday, September 6, 2011

When Hannah met Tom

Since Thomas Hobbes published his seminal work Leviathan in 1651, western political theorists have been at pains to undermine Hobbes' fundamental assumptions and conclusions about man and the body politic. Few have accepted that Hobbes was far more right than he was wrong. Many--like Locke and Rousseau--attempted to twist Hobbes' ideas into their own, tacitly accepting them while claiming to argue against them.

But Hannah Arendt was no such fool thinker. She accepted Hobbes at face value and recognized that as far as the modern world goes, it was Hobbes who had captured what was to come, who had correctly anticipated the detachment and isolation that modernity would inflict on the individual.

As we hurtle forward in time, as the citizenry of nations look to politicians and governments to save them from economic turmoil, it is perhaps appropriate to look back on what Arendt saw in Hobbes.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arrendt rightly noted that in Hobbes, the bourgeoisie found the only philosopher to whom they "can rightly and exclusively lay claim." Commerce and productivity are the avenues of power for the individual in the modern world, and in this regard both are approached from the perspective of the individual, not that of the group or of society as a whole. Weber's "work ethic" is the idealization of this baser reality.

And it's a reality born of human nature, as Hobbes has argued and Arendt has agreed. Consider this quote from Arendt on Hobbes:
Thus membership in any form of community is for Hobbes a temporary and limited affair which essentially does not change the solitary and private character of the individual (who has “no pleasure, but on the contrary a great deale of griefe in keeping company, where there is no power to overawe them all”) or create permanent bonds between him and his fellow-men.
Could this encapsulate our modern world any better than it does?

As to the structure of government, of the state, Arendt notes that Hobbes "new body politic" is itself a product of the needs of this modern man and is:
...based on the delegation of power, and not of rights. It acquires a monopoly on killing and provides in exchange a conditional guarantee against being killed. Security is provided by the law, which is a direct emanation from the power monopoly of the state (and is not established by man according to human standards of right and wrong). And as this law flows directly from absolute power, it represents absolute necessity in the eyes of the individual who lives under it. In regard to the law of the state – that is, the accumulated power of society as monopolized by the state – there is no question of right or wrong, but only absolute obedience, the blind conformism of bourgeois society.
Because of this structure, the individual looks more and more to his own life, his own fate, as society's fate has moved largely beyond his control and concern. His relations with his fellow citizens become based on a comparison of their lives with his, as these relations "with his fellow-men inside society take the form of competition."

Under this rubric, the role of the state increases, as it becomes the locus of responsibilities once shared by society-at-large, but now shirked off, in preference for private lives:
By assigning his political rights to the state the individual also delegates his social responsibilities to it: he asks the state to relieve him of the burden of caring for the poor precisely as he asks for protection against criminals. The difference between pauper and criminal disappears – both stand outside society. The unsuccessful are robbed of the virtue that classical civilization left them; the unfortunate can no longer appeal to Christian charity.
Does this sound vaguely familiar? Is it not exactly reflective of the current conflict of visions in Washington, DC and throughout much of the world?

So the question is--in my mind--do we continue to delegate more and more of our responsibilities to the state, or do we try to take some back?

Cheers, all.

1 comment:

  1. viva la revolucion! Come on over to the dark side.