Leviathan

One of these days I will take the plunge and compose a “greatest influences” books list, as some of the other Conspirators have done.  I have hesitated in part because my list would not tend to contain works of monumental ideas, but instead plays, works of fiction, poetry, and fragments that are not always  blockbusters in the history of ideas, as well major works of the left.

Part of this is generational.  I intellectually came of age in a period in which both Marx and Freud were still considered the giants, and in which the humanities had not yet collapsed into its current state of identity politics and post-modernist irrelevance; literature was still believed to shed light on something called the human condition – though these were by then on the way out.  Rational choice economics had not yet won over the academy, partly through its own intellectual strengths but also from being the ‘last man standing’ as the humanities sawed off the intellectual branch, as it were, it was sitting on.  I came from the peculiar position of what Larry Solum once called my “left Burkeanism” with a good bit of American libertarianism thrown in.

But it was not until quite recently that I read a long list of thinkers on the libertarian or conservative end of things – part of this was that I studied philosophy, not economics, and many of the leading thinkers pointed to by other Conspirators such as Hayek or Friedman did not figure into my intellectual education.  I am the classic case of one of the tangential but not unshrewd definitions sometimes given of a neoconservative – a leftwinger who has moved right.  For many of those “neoconservatives,”  including me, the core intellectual influences from early on come, not from the right or even centrist liberalism, but from the intellectual left.  Marx, the left Hegel, a long list of left European intellectuals such as Gramsci, etc., etc.  I am intellectually as much a product of the melding of a very traditional education in Anglo-American analytic philosophy of a certain period – Wittgenstein, Philippa Foot, Rogers Albritton – and the European critical theory and intellectual history of the great critical theory journal Telos.

My intellectual influences definitely included, however, the great figures of the British traditions in philosophy and political theory, Locke, Hume, Bentham, Mill, etc., and, probably at the top of my list, Hobbes.  Very much in an analytic philosophy tradition rather than a historical one; seeing these ancient political essays as political theory to be treated a-historically rather than as intellectual history.  I studied Locke’s Second Treatise as a pure system of intellectual propositions, and only much later gained an appreciation of the way in which Locke was deeply engaged in the political arguments of his day.  Leviathan was studied – I’m glancing at my first Leviathan text and my undergraduate marginalia (ouch, ouch ouch) – purely as a system of rational propositions, with no attention whatsoever to the religious wars of the day.

So, given the importance of Hobbes to my own intellectual formations, I welcome the notice and review in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal of a new Yale critical edition of the Leviathan, edited by Ian Shapiro, and aimed at a general rather than academically specialized audience.  It has four interpretive essays, all of which receive good notices from the WSJ reviewer, the historian and Hobbes scholar Jeffrey Collins.  The WSJ review essay is a fine piece of writing on its own, and raises the question, not just of Hobbes’ enduring importance, but why he has particularly been of interest in the past few years.  Collins puts the issue this way:

The question is why Hobbes’s account has enjoyed such popularity in recent decades. The likes of John Locke and James Madison long ago demonstrated the limits of Hobbes’s raw statism. But many thinkers and political actors, lately, seem to prefer Hobbes’s vision of society to theirs. Why should this be so?

One might point to several reasons. Hobbes’s snide irreligion, once the main complaint against him, may now commend him to those who perpetually fear the supposed return of theocracy. His tendency to portray humans as appetitive beasts flatters our present eagerness to explain every aspect of human conduct in biological terms. Hobbes was also acutely suspicious of democracy. He considered it a breeder of faction. When pundits such as Thomas Friedman decry “broken government” and fawn over China’s “enlightened” response to global warming, one wonders if the Hobbesian within the liberal breast is stirring.

Certainly there is something to this, and indeed a great deal to it.  Left libertinism of the 60s generation has given way to left authoritarianism, and in support of that, one can find support in readings of Hobbes.  To which, however, I have two critiques.  The first is not that which is offered here as the importance of Leviathan – the argument for authoritarianism.  What I take away as most important from Hobbes for the present situation is something quite different (in my own simplification of the elegant interpretation of Leviathan offered by the Hobbes scholar Sharon Lloyd in her book Ideals as Interests in Hobbes’ Leviathan).  It is that for all Hobbes’ rationalism to the end of absolute authority, he recognized that there were persons – the zealots, the religious fanatics – who would not and could not be reached by reason or fear.

To which the solution for the sake of the commonwealth was … seek to convert them, and in particular show them that they had no reason to be in fear of Hell, and failing that, kill them and raise their children differently.  I exaggerate a bit for effect, but perhaps not, my point is not to read Hobbes as authority for Thucydidean slaughter.  Nor is my point even that Hobbes’ embraces the necessitarian logic of Thucydides and, in Walzer’s phrase, makes it his own by claiming the nature of necessity as the necessity of nature.  My point is that even those of us who think that there are many considerations beyond pure necessity had better be aware of what it prescribes – otherwise we risk living in an unreal and unnatural world; hopes that end badly.

Not everyone in our world is reasonable, there are people and causes and ideologies, including Islamist religionists, who are beyond the appeal of rational choice.  That’s what Hobbes bids us keep in our minds.  It seems to me this is the crucial lesson from Hobbes’ unvarnished rationalism about power and reason, for today’s world.  Where rationality does not hold, then proceeding by methods premised upon rational choice, and the smooth slide and play of marginal incentives and disincentives, does not work.  There is nothing more pitiful than the smooth negotiator who believes that everything can always be negotiated, and few things more costly to sovereign political community than a mistake as to whether the thing at issue is a matter of negotiation or instead touches something deeper, a non-negotiable form of life.  We, after all, are supposed to have some number of beyond-rational-choice non-negotiables, fundamental theorems of human rights; fanatics and zealots have theirs, so too.  The question is what to do and how to do it regarding fanatics and zealots whose non-negotiables are incompatible with our non-negotiables.  But in order to understand the logic of that choice and its relationship to rational choice, Hobbes lays down the fundamental lesson that not even his system of fearsome rationality can manage to reason with everyone.

Second, however, I do not think that today’s liberal authoritarianism is typically rooted in a truly Hobbesian logic.  The Hobbesian logic is grounded upon the rational fears that each must have of every other in the state of nature – a particular form of the tragedy of the commons, in which the common resource to be exploited in the state of nature is each upon others.  The Hobbesian conclusion is, of course, that only an absolute master can provide the public good of personal security.  I don’t believe that captures precisely the problem that progressives have today with democratic process.  Their distaste for it arises, much more profoundly, in my view, from a sense that social and political processes have lost their ability to cohere and make policy – too many people in a democratic system that has been de-natured into mere interest group politics with no greater sense of common cohesion have been granted a veto.

The irony, to be sure, is that this loss of governing coherence is in large part a creation of progressivism itself – the effects of multiculturalism, particularly, in reducing the extra-rational, extra-interest sense of communal ideals, a demos creating a polis, rather than hoping that pure Hobbesian rationality will create a polis of rationality, without any shared sense of community, alone.  The progressive political factions that, in power, bemoan their inability to govern – and leaving aside that perhaps a large part of the inability to govern lies in having handed so much of the task over to professors and academics; I at least have a clear sense of what I would lack as an executive – in large part created these conditions.  They did so by de-mythologizing, which is to say de-legitimating, the communal political community, the part that allowed the interest groups to flourish by serving as an extra-rational, extra-interest guarantor of the political community.

In this world, we are all just interest groups now, thanks; that is the sum total of democracy.  But also by mythologizing communal, identity politics constituencies within the political community and moreover in its place. Progressive elites then profess surprise when, at least on the progressive end of the spectrum, the notion of political community has no meaning because it has no boundaries to define it.  There are still spoils to be divided, but no political community actually to govern.  This creates a problem, however, for the many things for which the current rulers actually do want to govern a political community and set the terms for the demos, having, so to speak, sawn off the branch on which it was sitting.

This is pretty much what Thomas Friedman’s lamentations to be China amount to – the inability of the current masters to force through their curriculum.  He laments the inability of the political class to cohere the political community – while failing to recognize that it is his class that has largely created the loss of coherence.  Note that Thomas Friedman’s columns mostly want Chinese communist command and control not to deal with plain emergencies that come from outside the ordinary politics of the political community – but instead, he longs for these authoritarian powers to do precisely the ordinary tasks that a democracy, in its messy ways, should be able to perform.  He is not wrong to identify the increasingly difficult problem of coherent political action; he is wrong not to recognize that it is a function of his own political elites and their systematic downgrading of precisely the legitimacy of political community over faction that they now desperately seek.

But the loss of coherence as a ground for authoritarianism is not really Hobbes’ core logic, which is one of creating a political community out of the state of nature not for the sake of being able to pursue common, collective interests, but for the purpose of security, one against another.  The current political masters are dismayed at the inability in crucial ways to govern a political community.  That concern, far from illegitimate, is instead one of the most fundamental problems of mature democracies; sclerotic interest group and identity politics factions displace not just the relations of the political community, but its fundamental legitimacy.  But it is an incoherence that they themselves both firmly helped create.

Finally, however, the liberal authoritarianism that started to take hold in the first days of the Clinton administration, but then went into retreat, and has now reasserted itself with nudginess – the return of the repressed – is not Hobbesian in another, utterly fundamental way.  Today’s progressive authoritarianism is not about an institutional settlement to the war of all against all, every man for himself and God against all, but instead an assertion of therapeutic authoritarianism.  It will not just provide you with security against your neighbor – it is for your own interior, psychological well being, to help you be simultaneously a better person and a therapeutically more happy one.  Contemporary liberal authoritarian impulses unite the prosecutor and the therapist, so as to produce a prosecutor who is as much a member of the “helping professions” as the psychologist (or, more exactly, the behavioral economist nudging us along), on the one hand, and a therapist who is armed as much as the prosecutor with the powers to compel, on the other.  It is not Hobbesian, but something frankly far more ambitious.

(A tangential thought.  I have sometimes been surprised that discussions of Leviathan often overlook the sheer modernity of its prose style.  It seems to me to exemplify, in the ways that most matter, Orwell’s call for a plain prose style, the style of Politics and the English Language.  Plain and unadorned, resting heavily upon the argument and far more lightly on the rhetoric.)

(Note:  I was going to clean this up and fix the grammar and some other unclear stuff before opening for comments, but I’m on the road today, so I’ll open it to comments, should anyone want to now, but try to get back and make some changes later.)