Resisting Leviathan: Why I’m a rebel

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Leviathan, written by Thomas Hobbes in 1651 (Image via Wikipedia)

Political editor, Dr Martin Hirst, has been back to the history books. This week he argues that it is the progressive side of politics that has inherited the right of rebellion against the modern Leviathan.

LAST WEEK, I wrote about the politics of exclusion as practised by the conservative forces in Australia. I compared their outlook with the depressing passages in Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, which characterise a social war of “all against all” and the conditions of life for the underclass as “nasty, brutish and short”.

In the comments thread, I was reminded of two aspects that I didn’t cover thoroughly — I’m limited by the instructions of my editors to keep my contributions to a manageable length!

I also realised that I needed to make clear that I think Leviathan today is the capitalist state as constituted at the national level in all areas of the globe. A fundamental contradiction in the global system of nation-states is that capital itself is transational in nature. Outside of small-to-medium enterprises, very little of any national economy is actually in the hands of local capitalists. Even at the SME level, multinational franchise companies are really pulling the strings and pulling in the profits.

Thus, nation states are in the process of becoming obsolete. I don’t hold with “world government” conspiracy theories, but organisations like the G7, the IMF, the World Bank, the European Union and the United Nations represent the efforts of national states to regulate their interaction on behalf of global business elites.

This makes the world very unstable, hence the need for the modern Leviathan. In fact, I would argue that, in the 21st Century, this unstable alliance of nation states and transnational capital needs the conditions of war, brutality and exclusion in order to define itself as the “good guys”.

In Australia, this means that the Coalition needs us to be fearful of welfare recipients and refugees in order to secure our reluctant consent for it to rule over us.

The modern Leviathan is also fearful of resistance, hence the tactics of divide-and-conquer against its many internal enemies. As this tweet demonstrates so well, the list of the Coalition’s internal enemies is long and growing longer by the day:

There’s another way to read this list. This is a list of potential members of the resistance movement. Leviathan has created an enemy with a common cause.

Which is what I want to discuss today.

The first reminder from last week’s comment thread came from Rodney McNamara, who pointed out that ‘exclusion’ is the result of the Coalition’s ‘very active policies of division’. He’s right, too. If you look at what passes for political and policy rhetoric from the Fizza and his cronies, it is all about divide-and-rule.

It’s not enough to merely exclude welfare recipients — they have to be demonised, too. It’s not enough to exclude refugees and asylum seekers, we have to be convinced they are an enemy Fifth Column.

That is why Turnbull and Dutton, Fifield and the rest of that rotten bunch of clowns rely so heavily on the Murdoch-dominated mainstream media. Sky News, The Terrograph, the Hun and the Stray’un can be relied upon to demonise the scapegoats so that we come to fear and loathe the innocent victims of austerity, neoliberalism and the ruling class’ defensive, exclusionary racist mindset.

A right to resist

The missing Hobbesian ingredient in my piece last week was about the resistance.

Resisting Leviathan is not only possible, it is necessary.

As Rodney pointed out, the conservatives do not have it all their own way, all of the time:

‘The new vibrancy of the unions is beginning to bear fruit and the more this Liberal RABBLE attack the more we should proactively bond groups together.’

A similar point was made by Jexpat, who also helpfully referenced a section of the Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which is actually a pretty good source for pocket guides to the world’s great thinkers.

The encyclopedia’s entry on Thomas Hobbes mentions how, in Leviathan, there are also passages defending the right of citizens, the ‘subjects of liberty’ to defend themselves against abuses of power by the sovereign.

This is often overlooked today because… well, this might take some explaining, so stay with me.

First and foremost, Hobbes was a materialist. This simply means that he felt that the physical circumstances of life were more important than pious sentiments about the will of God in determining choices and outcomes of human endeavour. In this vein, he mounted the argument that without Leviathan – a state apparatus – humanity would revert to “nature” and thus the calamity of all-out war and short, brutish lives.

The second important historical note about Hobbes and Leviathan is that it was published in 1651, after more than a decade of the first English Revolution against absolutism. Hobbes’ thesis was published in April of that year, when it did indeed look like a war of all against all. Cromwell versus the Crown and a civil war raging up and down the country, and spilling over into mercantilist sparring other European powers over issues of trade and empire.

Hobbes was not a revolutionary, despite Leviathan. He believed that monarchy was a better form of government than democracy. Hardly surprising at the time given the limited nature of democratic theory at the time.

Therefore, at best, we can argue that Hobbes was himself divided intellectually and perhaps a little confused about the right of resistance.

In some passages, he appears to argue that the rule of Leviathan cannot be challenged because citizens enter into a social contract with the state as the basis of their freedom. Citizens effectively relinquish a right to complain in return for a live-above-brutal nature.

In other passages, he argues for what seems to be a limited right of self-defence on the grounds that nobody wishes to be put to death at the hands of another person. You cannot rationally will your own death by murder.

Hobbes ends up siding with absolutism, but the scholarly debate about the right of rebellion in Leviathan has been raging for several years. On one side, a traditional reading of Leviathan in which, it is argued, Hobbes does not support actions that would lead to the overthrow of the sovereign. In effect, the social contract exists in perpetuity and there is no right of renegotiation.

Put bluntly, on this reading of Hobbes, the Leviathan is right, even when it is wrong.

The alternative view is put by American moral philosopher Susanne Sreedhar, in a 2010 book Hobbes on Resistance: Defying the Leviathan. But it is a tortured argument and one rebutted by the traditionalists. However, we can take some comfort in Sreedhar’s work and several reviewers support her position.

There is a certain logic in accepting a right of rebellion. If the freedom of subjects (citizens) is to mean anything at all, it must include the right to replace the sovereign if their disagreement with the State is great enough.

We also have to see Hobbes’ absolutism as a product of the times. The English Civil War had been raging since 1640, by 1651 the forces of Charles II were in disarray (his father was executed a few years earlier) and Charles had fled to France in September (five months after Leviathan was published).

Hobbes was clever enough to understand some aspects of the Civil War – after all, he lived through it – but he didn’t have a clear handle on the class politics in play.

To understand this, we need to refer to the work of the British Marxist Christopher Hill, who wrote a substantial thesis on the class nature of the Civil War in 1940 and continued to revise it in later years.

To summarise it briefly, my interpretation is that the English Revolution of 1640-60 was a great social movement like the French Revolution of 1789. The state power protecting an old order that was essentially feudal was violently overthrown, power passed into the hands of a new class and so the freer development of capitalism was made possible. The Civil War was a class war, in which the despotism of Charles I was defended by the reactionary forces of the established Church and conservative landlords. Parliament beat the king because it could appeal to the enthusiastic support of the trading and industrial classes in town and countryside, to the yeomen and progressive gentry and to wider masses of the population whenever they were able by free discussion to understand what the struggle was really about.

Hobbes, like many intellectuals of his day, had an innate fear of the mob, just at the time when the mob was coming into its own and emerging as a new cluster of class forces. The bourgeoisie and merchants, the landed peasants in alliance, and a mass of rural and industrial workers who had very little stake in the system but who were willing to fight the king’s forces.

I think it is Hobbes' resolute disgust at the idea of the rural city-based labourers ever seizing power in their own right that forces him to back away from granting subjects a right to challenge Leviathan.

The winners out of the English Civil War were the merchant and bourgeois class, which, over the next 200 years, solidified their place as the ruling class, replacing the aristocracy and reducing the monarch to a useful figurehead.

In the end, the bourgeois chose to make a deal with the royalists because their fear of the emerging working class was greater. The merchants and owners of capital favoured a limited franchise that suited their class interests. The emerging proletariat was left out of the equation for much longer.

Hobbes feared the mob, which in Leviathan he describes in very blunt terms:

‘Freeholders and tradesmen are the strength of religion and civility in the land; and gentlemen and beggars and servile tenants are the strength of inquiry.’

Tradesmen here refers to merchants, not brickies and sparkies.

The Civil War was fought on the back of economic crisis, the bourgeoisie could see a way out, a thorough political and economic overhaul of feudalism. This is why they rejected the king.

In doing so, they demonstrated in practice, if not in Hobbes’ theories, that they would enjoy – and indeed use – their new-found rights to overthrow Leviathan.

Unfortunately, the bourgeoisie did not want to extend such liberties to the working poor. Uprisings of the poor were brutally suppressed over the next 200 years and beyond.

It really wasn’t until the end of the 19th Century that the working classes secured real political representation in bourgeois parliaments. It wasn’t until the birth of modern trade unionism that workers’ rights were eventually enshrined in law. It wasn’t until the arrival of the Workers’ Internationals led by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels that true liberation of the working class became possible.

Progressive politics have always been built on the basis of inclusion, diversity and solidarity. Further, progressive politics has always enshrined the right to rebel.

The contradictions inherent in Leviathan have always plagued bourgeois philosophers. That’s why Thomas Paine and J.S. Mill (among others) advanced the debate about liberty and civil rights in the centuries following Hobbes.

Paine was 140 years after Hobbes; Rights of Man was published in 1791 to defend the right of Europe’s bourgeois class to continue the fight against absolutism that had begun 150 years earlier in 1640.

J.S. Mill’s On Liberty was published in 1859, 200 years after Hobbes and a decade after Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, published in 1848.

It took 200 years for the bourgeois revolutions to complete their work. The first French Revolution was in 1789 and began with the storming of the Bastille — something Hobbes would certainly have opposed. The second French Revolution of 1848 was much more dangerous, socialists were active and it was defeated by a military coup. 25 years later, a Third Revolution began with distinctly proletarian features. The Paris Commune of 1871 was brutally smashed and thousands of Parisienne workers slaughtered by the French and German military.

The point being?

The progressive side of politics are the inheritors of this tradition of solidarity and resistance. The ruling class has always been the main enemy.

Today, as much as ever, we need to fight for our rights.

You can follow political editor Dr Martin Hirst on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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