For the laws of nature (as justice, equity, modesty, mercy, and, in sum, doing to others as we would be done to) of themselves, without the terror of some power, to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our natural passions, that carry us to partiality, pride, revenge and the like.
Without the terror of some power. Hobbes didn’t trust us. He didn’t, in fact, trust anyone not cowed by the rule of an elite. What neither he nor any other authoritarian has ever adequately explained, however, is what mysterious process or agency it is which invests this elite with virtues none of the rest of us possess, and therefore makes them fit agents to supplement the laws of nature with whatever temporal power is necessary to ensure that the rest of us obey them.
This is the essence of politics, the idea that the rule of one group over another has to be legitimized by something other than superior power. If it isn’t, war — whether metaphorical or real — becomes our natural state, as groups rely on power alone to justify their claim to rule. History suggests that even when there’s temporarily a clear victor in such wars, the result tends to be an oppressive and ultimately unstable society, and that sooner or later, the cycle of contention will begin again.
Back in the day — the 1960’s, for those who don’t remember them — activists on the American left were fond of quoting Mao Zedong’s famous maxim, political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, as the final word on political realism. My own thought at the time, hearing this from leather-jacketed scions of the bourgeoisie, was that we could do with fewer romantics in the movement. Mao wasn’t an idiot, and there was a good deal of truth in many of his truisms, but Mao, whether or not he or anyone else realized it, owed as much to Hobbes as he did to Marx.
The American political experiment has very different roots, which are perhaps best summarized in the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
This, particularly the bolded part, is the ultimate expression of faith that the problem of political legitimacy can be solved without resort to tyranny. Despite its contradiction of Hobbes’ idea of the social contract, and the misgivings of tyrants everywhere, it is also, I would argue, the cornerstone of any political realism worthy of the name.
The founders of the American state were men of faith, certainly, but they weren’t stupid or ignorant men. They knew as well as the Pharoahs of Egypt or the Ch’in Emperor did that governments are instituted among men for all sorts of reasons, few of which have anything at all to do with securing the inalienable rights of a majority. Nevertheless, they were standing on a new continent, a tabula rasa, as it seemed to them. (This would surely have been news to the Cherokee, the Seminole, or the Lakota, of course, or to the slaves in Jefferson’s own back yard, but as conservatives are fond of pointing out, new principles, being new, often embrace even less of reality than do ancient ones.) If the members of the Continental Congress didn’t want to repeat the moribund and oppressive politics which had driven them from their European homeland, they really had no alternative but to experiment, to assume the responsibility for turning the abstract into the concrete without relying on established custom, or even, in many cases, on their own instincts.
And what of their American experiment, 230+ years on? Despite our best efforts, not a great deal remains of it. The Right to Life has become the label for a religious prohibition which a minority demands be enacted into law. The Right to Liberty has no force in the workplace, because the workplace is owned by people who view the liberty of workers as an administrative inconvenience, and the courts recognize few limits on the rights of ownership. In recent years, even those limits which the law and the courts do recognize have rarely been enforced by the executive branch of the government. Finally, the Right to the pursuit of Happiness has in large part been reduced to the sanction of a misguided quest for things — bigger things, and more of them. Why this quest should require our government to bomb wedding parties in Afghanistan, or construct military airbases in Uzbekistan; why it should require our corporations to force subsistence farmers off land in Mexico or Guatemala coveted for industrialized crop monocultures, or export manufacturing jobs to countries which offer the lowest wage structures and weakest labor laws, are questions which don’t seem to concern most Americans.
They should be concerned. In the first place, both happiness and liberty are indivisible; you can’t acquire more of either for yourself by taking it from someone else. In the second place, the consent of the governed becomes a mockery when it amounts to little more than the indifference of the governed.
Here, of course, is where authoritarians — Hobbes most especially — believe that they hold the trump card. You see, they say, even you democrats are forced to admit it. When the people aren’t wolves, who must be subdued, they are sheep, who must be herded. Only an elite can lead them in any case. Being a democrat, I would reply along with Jefferson that what distinguishes leaders from the led is interest. Not heredity, not intelligence or virtue, and most especially not the sanction of God, nor the outcome of a struggle for wealth or power.
A decent society, a democratic society, which offers as few impediments as possible to a broadly-defined public interest, is always well served, precisely because it facilitates the development of a legitimate source of leadership that is both broadly and deeply rooted in the society as a whole. The authoritarian society, regardless of its pretensions to the contrary, serves only one real interest, the preservation of the status and privileges of the elites which govern it. It does so by blocking the interests of the majority, only to discover, as it devotes more and more of its energies to the task of protecting those elites, that its efforts inevitably end by serving no one, not even the elites themselves.
This is where the United States finds itself today. It may be a nation conceived in liberty, as Lincoln famously put it, but is no longer dedicated — even in theory — to the proposition that all men are created equal.
If it were otherwise, it would be hard to explain, given both the statistical and anecdotal evidence of the suffering caused by the present state of our health care industry, why everyone who matters in Washington continues to insist that single-payer is off the table. When asked for a reason why this is so, given its obvious advantages over the corrupt and prohibitively expensive insurance system which we have today, the closest we get to a meaningful answer, from President Obama, is that our present system of insurers and providers employs thousands of people, and that single payer would threaten their livelihood. Considering that a large percentage of these people are employed in processing redundant paperwork, or finding ways to deny coverage to those who need it, is this really a reason which anyone who understands what’s at stake should be obliged to take seriously?
If ours is a government of the people, by the people and for the people, why must schools, prisons, hospitals, and even libraries be outsourced and recast as profit centers? Why are we incessantly told that traditional civil institutions must now be run like businesses? What businesses should they be run like — Citigroup? General Motors? Wal*Mart? What happened to government-sponsored low interest college loans? Why are student loans, and the students who contract for them now in the hands of usurers? Why is it that no matter what question you ask, the answer from Washington is to cut taxes on the wealthy?
Can anyone who believes that the United States is still a representative democracy explain why the government finds it necessary to spy on citizens without a warrant, and why no ordinary citizen can find out what the information is being used for, or how long it’s being kept? Does anyone know why, when this illegal spying was discovered, the Congress passed laws to legalize it, and to retroactively immunize those who had taken taken part in it against prosecution for their illegal acts? Does this seem at all consistent with the Bill of Rights?
Given the present state of our country, questions like this could go on for many more paragraphs. Just in the realm of foreign affairs and the military, one might ask if there are any convincing reasons, as opposed to the reasons Fox News gives us, for bombing those wedding parties in Afghanistan, or torturing people to death, or building military bases in Uzbekistan, or Diego Garcia or over seven hundred other places, most of which few of us have ever heard of. One might even ask why the army now has a North American Command. If Thomas Jefferson were still around, you can be sure that he’d be interested in the answer to that.
The truth of the matter is that all these questions can be reduced to one single, very simple question: whose interests are being served by all of this? You don’t have to be Karl Marx, or even Noam Chomsky, to suspect that the answer isn’t the people’s interest. Hobbes’ answer is, in fact, more than sufficient. What we are witnessing is the terror of some power. Sadly, it isn’t being employed to enforce those benevolent laws of nature which were so dear to Hobbes in his own time of chaos. Far from it.
What are we to do about this? For myself, I prefer Jefferson’s answer, from the same passage of the Declaration of Independence which I’ve already quoted above:
That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Shall we begin?