Chapter 2: What State Are We In?
In my view, not only flight, but also distrust, suspicion, precaution and provision against fear are all characteristic of men who are afraid. On going to bed men lock their doors; when going on a journey, they arm themselves because they are afraid of robbers. Countries guard their frontiers with fortresses, their cities with walls . . .
– De Cive, Chapter 1, T. Hobbes
There is much that is offensive to modern liberal sensitivities about Thomas Hobbes’s portrayal of mankind’s condition – self interested, motivated by fear, competitive — but people living in gated communities should not throw aspersions, at least not Hobbes’s way. Countries armed to the teeth, both privately and militarily, building walls around their perimeters, are in no moral or political position to lecture on the fundamentally benign nature of human kind. Nonetheless, be reminded that Hobbes is writing about man in what he called “The State of Nature,” i.e. what men and women act like when engulfed in an environment of cheating and deceit, where “free riders” game the systems of business and politics with impunity. Very simply, Hobbes describes man’s nature as it perhaps was, is, or might be in the future—deprived of the structures, political and cultural, that make us civil and provide the opportunities to build trust, create wealth and find peace.
While deeply interested in the emerging scientific methods and discoveries of his own time (He met with Galileo and knew the physician William Harvey personally.), Hobbes had no advantage of the discoveries of medicine, biology, physics and neuroscience of our own day. More than three and a half centuries since his death it is easy enough, for instance, to attack Hobbes’s “psychology” or “anthropology” in much the same way as any fourth grader could devastatingly critique many of Aristotle’s scientific ideas. So allow me, if you will, to shift our focus a bit from Hobbes’s psychology and anthropology, i.e. his views of man in the raw, to the notion of The State of Nature itself, from the perspective of the 17th Century to the 21st, and not chiefly with respect to natural persons, but with respect to quite unnatural persons, i.e. Nation States and Multinational Corporations.
The hopeful aspect of Hobbes’s political philosophy was that we humans, once we became enfranchised citizens of a commonwealth where the rule of law and a ruler for law were operative, could as well become quite congenial, even trusting and trustworthy beings. Hobbes might not have been quite as enthusiastic or gone quite as far as the French social contractarian Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778), but he would have pretty much agreed with this classic statement of what happens when humans make common cause and an enforceable framework of civility surrounds them:
The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces a very remarkable change in man . . . Then only, when the voice of duty takes the place of physical impulses and right to appetite, does man, who so far had considered only himself, find that he is forced to act on different principles, and to consult his reason before listening to his inclinations . . .
– The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right, J. J. Rousseau (1762)
In the next chapter we will deal with Hobbesian concepts of governance and sovereignty directly, but the point here is that natural persons in much of the developed world enjoy, and have for decades (in some cases centuries) the advantages of civil life and civic community. Hobbes believed that in community we are changed, and the state of war – all against all – is replaced by all those public and private goods he listed in the first part of that famous quotation about life being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”: industry, commerce, agriculture, architecture, navigation, trade, public transportation, geography, time keeping, art, literature, philanthropy, social relationships.
Obviously, a lot of the world of the 21st Century does not enjoy the fruits of the commonwealth ticked off by Hobbes, but many of us – particularly in the United States and Canada — have been born, nurtured, educated, earned good livings, raised families, and gone into plentiful retirement because of how well we have fenced out the chaotic state of nature un-enjoyed by so many of our fellow travelers on space ship earth. This chapter is not about life within the civil parameters of the developed nations. It is about the international arena, where the actors are not so much natural persons but unnatural, fictitious or juridical persons we call corporations and nation states. That arena, the place beyond the borders of domestic tranquility where almost all semblance of social contract has atrophied if not disappeared entirely, fully lives up to Thomas Hobbes’s description of The State of Nature. And we might also note, because of the lack of any functional social contract between the nations and other international actors (MNCs, NGOs, IGOs), the state nature itself is in!
In De Cive and in The Leviathan Hobbes defines the parameters of what he calls “The Conditions of Nature.” I summarize as follows: (1) There is fundamental, radical equality: equality of human need, as well as an equality of human power; (2) There is a stark scarcity of those basic goods needed for human survival (food, water, shelter, clean air, companionship); (3) There is only very limited altruism. As you can see from our discussions in Chapter 1, for Hobbes the nature of man basically defines the conditions of nature, and indeed it is difficult to parcel Hobbes’s ideas out into neat divisions or chapters, as you have probably already noticed!
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .” begins Jefferson’s rendering of The Declaration of Independence. It is perhaps the most famous political statement in the lexicon of democracy. As far as it goes Hobbes would agree, but no farther. Jefferson’s idea that continues, “. . . and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” would assuredly find Hobbes both distinguishing his own position as well as defecting in part from Jefferson’s great declaration. It is the God stuff and the expansive assumption of natural rights by Jefferson that would give Hobbes pause. Well then, you say, give me Jefferson! In fact, the USA has tried to give all sorts of folks Jefferson’s form of democracy, most recently Iraq and Afghanistan, but with a remarkable lack of success. That is, at least, the argument I will try to make.
Thomas Hobbes is often called a “foundationalist philosopher.” His life’s work in a time of chaotic social and political turmoil (17th Century Britain) was to establish the ground work (theoretical foundations) for what he called the Social Contract—the conditions of security or peace within which human life might flourish. In our own period of history it is again critical, given the collapse of the entire institutional framework of international law and governance framed in the last century, to revive foundational thinking and analysis. A simple, though I hope not simplistic, way to understand different philosophical, theological or ethical foundations is to look at each through the perspective of one of the three most basic questions language can pose: What, How and Why.
The foundation of Thomas Hobbes’s political philosophy is the answer to the what. What, Hobbes asks, is the most basic reality shared by all human beings? What is a commonality of being that is in no way subjective, in no way a construct of our imagining or speculation or rhetoric or beliefs? His answer, it is life. This common element is sensed – made palpable to us – in fear, in the knowledge that our life is fragile and can easily be lost. We are equal, Hobbes believed, because we can equally easily kill the other and the other, us. Sadly, we humans have been demonstrating this fact repeatedly in a tragic history of murder, war and genocide stretching back to the very origins of our species. The beautifully sad novel and movie, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in its very title captures Hobbes’s foundational assumption: we may differ on issues of religion, concepts of fundamental political rights, distinctions made based on race, age, gender, nationality, economic status, etc. but one reality trumps all others as most basic – we are all alive and we all will die, and we all fear – or should fear– that common inevitability.
The foundations of other public philosophies – e.g. David Hume, Adam Smith or Karl Marx – are grounded in the answer to the second interrogative, how. How is material life best maintained? How is human welfare positively affected? This is the instrumental question. In a world of limited resources and escalating population scarcity is a reality; no one should be caviler about the material provisions of sustenance. Both Capitalists and Communists would agree that property and how it is distributed are foundational to human survival. Of course, after this brief agreement the two grand economic theories part company but each maintains that in resolving issues of ownership and distribution of material goods, we are dealing with quite fundamental realities. Hobbes as well understood scarcity as a fundamental reality of existence.
For many of us it is not adequate just to be alive, or for that matter to be materially satisfied. We are more concerned with the last question, why. Why live? Why work? Why acquire wealth? Why contend politically to structure governments and economies one way or another? What’s the point of it all? And to many philosophers and almost all theologians those whys are the most fundamental of all questions. Immanuel Kant believed at bottom it was freedom that defined the nature of human being best; freedom that grounded the ethical connection of persons to each other and made life meaningful. Hear the echoes of the American patriot Patrick Henry (are you listening Thomas Hobbes?): “Give me liberty or give me death!”
Thus in the U. S. Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson did capture a bit of all of these notions with the foundational phrasing, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable (foundational) Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” For the firm of Marx, Smith and Hume it must be noted that while “property” does not appear in the grand trinity of “unalienable rights” that made it into the Declaration, this specific issue was debated, the word put in and taken out, only to reemerge in the Bill of Rights (i.e., in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, in the so called “taking clause”), “No person shall . . .be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
I would not want to suggest that these foundational questions and answers exhaust the subject. The romantic soul answers the “why” with love or affection. The spiritual soul might answer the question of why with “faith”, e.g. Martin Luther, “We are saved by grace through faith alone.” Or again, a person of faith might answer the “why” with a notion of salvation or heaven. For some, the human family itself is the foundation of value and the context for ethical reference.
Coming back to Hobbes, as noted, the old boy’s foundational work was to establish the grounds or conditions for creating what he called a Social Contract, basically the political conditions of security (peace) within which human life might flourish. If one considers the extraordinary barriers to achieving such social agreements that the economic, political, religious and emotional differences described above present, one gets an inkling of what the philosopher of Malmesbury was trying to get at in grounding his theory of Social Contract in a self evident, universal, inalienable reality: life.
Human beings do not agree on the fairest means of distributing goods and wealth, but we do agree that without access to basic resources we perish. We humans do not agree on issues of religion, faith, salvation and the after life, indeed we often kill each other over these differences, rather dramatically making Hobbes’s point! Sadly, we do not agree on human political equality or personal freedom, or the essential dimensions of human dignity. Nonetheless we all hang by a common thread of mortality, and in a biosphere increasingly loosing its capacity to support life we are all equal in vulnerability. While there are probably as many different definitions of happiness as there are persons on our planet, without life, the articulation of the meaning of happiness is the most empty of all speculations.
To his credit, Hobbes believed that once we understood our common vulnerability as living beings, we would make peace on earth our first priority. For me, that is as foundational as it gets.
Thus, and toward that end – peace – Hobbes posits his three conditions of nature: Radical Equality, Scarcity, and Limited Altruism. In the wide world beyond the shores of our little islands of civility, these three conditions define the realities of any new international ordering of human life on the planet.
For Hobbes the most obvious fact of all is that we human beings are equal – equally vulnerable, equally exposed both physically and emotionally in a world without law or governance. For Hobbes the starting point for any consideration of “the rules of the game” was that we are all located at ground zero.
(NB: we need some printing format for the examples of hierarchies which follow. Boxes, sidebars, something that doesn’t just use the same typeface, structure, etc. as the regular text of the chapter.)
However, human beings seem to enjoy hierarchies. Think of all the rankings of persons and offices we’ve come up with over time. Since we are talking about a 17 Century philosopher in England, take Royalty for instance
Emperor (ruler of empire)
King/Queen (ruler of nation)
Prince Consort/Princess Consort
Consider the rankings of ecclesiastical office in the Catholic Church (remembering as you read this the Christian teaching that “We are all equal in God’s sight.”):
What was it the Apostle Paul said about “we are all one in Christ?” Never mind.
Now consider the military:
Lieutenant Junior Grade
Chief Warrant Officer (5 to 1)
Ever wonder why dispersed, horizontal organizations like terrorist groups are so damnable and difficult for traditional military operations to deal with? Or why pirates, then and now, are more effective than the great armadas of ships of the line?
Or good old academia (All those liberals and socialists!):
Associate Professor (tenured)
Ever wonder why it is so difficult to reform the curricula of higher education to take account of societal changes or student needs?
Exceeding them all in the rankest of ranking, The Scottish Rite of the Society of Free Masons (in ascending order):
Lodge of Perfection
Degrees 1 through 3
4th Degree: Secret Master
5th Degree: Perfect Master
6th Degree: Intimate Secretary
7th Degree: Provost and Judge
8th Degree: Intendent of the Building
9th Degree: Elu, or Elected Knight, or the Nine
10th Degree: Illustrious Elect or Elu of the Fifteen
11th Degree: Sublime Knight Elect, or Elu, of the Twelve
12th Degree: Grand Master Architect
13th Degree: Knight of the Ninth Arch, or Royal Arch of Solomon
14th Degree: Grand Elect, Prefect and Sublime Mason, or Perfect Elu
Chapter of Rose Croix
15th Degree: Knight of the Sword
16th Degree: Prince of Jerusalem
17th Degree: Knight of the East and West
18th Degree: Knight Rose Croix
Council of Kadosh
19th Degree: Grand Pontiff
20th Degree: Grand Master of Symbolic Lodges
21st Degree: Noachite or Prussian Knight
22nd Degree: Knight of the Royal Axe
23rd Degree: Chief of the Tabernacle
24th Degree: Prince of the Tabernacle
25th Degree: Knight of the Brazen Serpent
26th Degree: Prince of Mercy
27th Degree: Knight Commander of the Temple
28th Degree: Knight of the Sun
29th Degree: Grand Scottish Knight of St. Andrew
30th Degree: Knight Kadosh
Consistory of Sublime Princes
31st Degree: Inspector Inquisitor Commander
32nd Degree: Sublime Prince of the Royal Secret
33rd Degree: Sovereign Grand Inspector General
Hobbes, to his credit, understood the instability of tall towers of pretense when it came to the critical enterprise of achieving a secure footing for social contracts of any sort. From forming an effective work group or neighborhood organization, to negotiating a multinational treaty the essential equality of interest between the parties is foundational. From Kings and Popes to peasants and paupers death remains the great leveler; preserving life the grand motivator. At that level, we all have the same stake in the game, at least that was Hobbes’s thinking.
Perhaps the most surprising notion that Hobbes had in describing what he meant by the state of nature was his notion of the equality of power. We are equal not just because of our equal vulnerability to death and our equal dependence on scarce common resources (see Scarcity below), we are equal because of how damnable difficult it is to hold on to political power. Now, that seems truly counter intuitive, especially when we look at the relative power of nation-states one to the other. But think of the powerful politically-equalizing forces of the 21st Century: terrorism, piracy, weapons of mass destruction, stateless terrorist organizations, nuclear proliferation, even the new means of internet communications. At so many different levels the 20th Century forms of international political power and imperialism – standing armies; nuclear missiles; carrier fleets, etc. – are just insufficient to provide peace, stability and security for the planet. As I am writing these words the Taliban, a loose alliance of radical Islamic terrorist in Afghanistan, has invaded and controls territory in Pakistan within 60 miles of Islamabad, the capital of that member of the “nuclear club.” Nation-states may themselves be equally vulnerable in terms of their relative capacity to deal with the realities of the 21st Century state of nature.
Walking the isles of a U.S. Superstore, that grand icon of the overabundance of stuff — food, clothing, gadgets and goods — it is easy to forget that this is a world of scarcity, a global ecosystem of quite real limits. The developed world’s temples of products with their liturgies of limitlessness do not produce in the consuming faithful a sacred sense of our finiteness. In a way, the benefits of Social Contracts long ago framed and made functional in many first world nation-states, has produced the blessings Thomas Hobbes suggested – those commodious buildings and such. The problem of scarcity is today not so much about products as it is about commons (i.e. that which cannot be commoditized), and it is not so much a problem of domestic concern – at least not in the developed world – as it is of the world beyond the borders nations.
Think about those absolutely essential elements necessary for human survival – air, water, food, shelter, medicine, emotional nurture, physical safety. Consider how long you might survive without air, less than five minutes? Or how long you could make it without water, maybe three or four days? Or if you went on a hunger strike how long could you last, maybe a week or so? Think as well about shelter and health care and police protection. Then take stock of how well we humans are doing in protecting and providing such necessities around the world, and you will do so, perhaps for the first time, with a Hobbesian perspective. That is, from a perspective of scarcity. Consider the following random facts about three interrelated scarcities – water, air and food:
- 70 percent of the world’s fish-stocks are dangerously depleted.
- Oceanographers describe the decline of coral reefs as “catastrophic.”
- In 2005 for the first time in human history, persisting for the last three consecutive summers, it has been possible to sail in open water across the Arctic Circle. (I have never met a serious sailor who doubts the reality of global climate change!)
- Approximately one billion people do not have access to safe drinking water. A 2006 United Nations report (“Water a Shared Responsibility”) blames this not on the lack of raw water supplies, but rather the failure of governments! (ala Hobbes and the State of Nature outside the Social Contract)
- 25,000 human beings, mostly young children, die each day of starvation.
- A World Health Organization (WHO) report says that 656,600 Chinese are killed each year by air pollution; that’s a city the size of my home town (Denver) dying every twelve months because of the scarcity of clean air to breathe!
- Worldwide the same WHO report estimates that over 2 million of us die each year due to diseases caused by air pollution. There goes the entire population of New Mexico every twelve months for lack of clean air.
All of us, of course, are use to the reading and hearing such lists of “terribles” when it comes to the environment, perhaps so use to hearing such facts recounted that we have become immune to their meaning. And that is precisely the human problem today. In insular communities of abundance the great sea of scarcity is unappreciated.
For Hobbes the state of nature was not the Garden of Eden, it was rather more akin to those trash heaps of the third world where children savage among garbage to feed themselves (ala the recent popular film, Slumdog Millionaire). Until we understand scarcity, Hobbes argued, we will not fashion a sufficient structure for our own survival.
Finally, the state the world is in is defined by what Hobbes called “Limited Altruism,” i.e. a scarcity of care. It is not so much that human beings don’t care (Hobbes understood that we naturally care for our children, form families, and even are inclined to help strangers), but human beings cannot afford to care, extend charity, in conditions of lawless competition for limited resources. The reality of limited altruism is Hobbes’s ultimate argument for the necessity of the social contract and the absolute sovereignty of the state. The brutish realities of failed states such as Bosnia or Somalia spring immediately to mind and to life.
Perhaps no aspect of Hobbes’s political philosophy has been as attacked as this, i.e., his stark concept of mankind’s necessary behavior under conditions of lawlessness. And yet, think of times when you have been in social or work groupings where you felt completely insecure, unappreciated, and threatened. Then add competition to the mix. The “rank and yank” philosophy (i.e. evaluating job performance and firing the bottom ten percent of the company’s employees) of many corporations in the late 20th Century produced precisely these conditions. It is sweet to opine on how humans are naturally good and inclined to help one another; it is unrealistic to think such altruism will be exercised under conditions of intense competition in lawless or unregulated environments.
My favorite example of this reality was captured on audio tape and first broadcast in 2004 by CBS News. Enron Corporation had gone bankrupt, and the US Justice Department had subpoenaed tapes of the conversations between the Enron energy traders during the 2000 California energy crisis. Grotesquely captured on audio tape was clear evidence of fraud and criminality, and dramatically, disgustingly, 21st Century support for Thomas Hobbes’s point about “limited altruism”: totally deregulate an industry, motivate its agents to compete without normative limits, and the war of all against all is not an archaic anachronism of the 17th Century. It is still chilling to read the transcript of the CBS broadcast:
(CBS) When a forest fire shut down a major transmission line into California, cutting power supplies and raising prices, Enron energy traders celebrated, CBS News Correspondent Vince Gonzales reports.
“Burn, baby, burn. That’s a beautiful thing,” a trader sang about the massive fire.
Four years after California’s disastrous experiment with energy deregulation, Enron energy traders can be heard – on audiotapes obtained by CBS News – gloating and praising each other as they helped bring on, and cash-in on, the Western power crisis.
“He just f—s California,” says one Enron employee. “He steals money from California to the tune of about a million.”
“Will you rephrase that?” asks a second employee.
“OK, he, um, he arbitrages the California market to the tune of a million bucks or two a day,” replies the first.
The tapes, from Enron’s West Coast trading desk, also confirm what CBS reported years ago: that in secret deals with power producers, traders deliberately drove up prices by ordering power plants shut down.
“If you took down the steamer, how long would it take to get it back up?” an Enron worker is heard saying.
“Oh, it’s not something you want to just be turning on and off every hour. Let’s put it that way,” another says.
“Well, why don’t you just go ahead and shut her down.”
Officials with the Snohomish Public Utility District near Seattle received the tapes from the Justice Department.
“This is the evidence we’ve all been waiting for. This proves they manipulated the market,” said Eric Christensen, a spokesman for the utility.
That utility, like many others, is trying to get its money back from Enron.
“They’re f——g taking all the money back from you guys?” complains an Enron employee on the tapes. “All the money you guys stole from those poor grandmothers in California?”
“Yeah, grandma Millie, man”
“Yeah, now she wants her f——g money back for all the power you’ve charged right up, jammed right up her a—— for f——g $250 a megawatt hour.”
And the tapes appear to link top Enron officials Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling to schemes that fueled the crisis.
“Government Affairs has to prove how valuable it is to Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling,” says one trader.
“Do you know when you started over-scheduling load and making buckets of money on that?
Before the 2000 election, Enron employees pondered the possibilities of a Bush win.
“It’d be great. I’d love to see Ken Lay Secretary of Energy,” says one Enron worker.
That didn’t happen, but they were sure President Bush would fight any limits on sky-high energy prices.
“When this election comes Bush will f——g whack this s–t, man. He won’t play this price-cap b——t.”
Crude, but true.
“We will not take any action that makes California’s problems worse and that’s why I oppose price caps,” said Mr. Bush on May 29, 2001.
Both the Justice Department and Enron tried to prevent the release of these tapes. Enron’s lawyers argued they merely prove “that people at Enron sometimes talked like Barnacle Bill the Sailor.”
And, by the way, they behaved precisely as Thomas Hobbes would have predicted!