Turning the Liberal Ratchet

Blame it all on Thomas Hobbes.

Chapter XIII of Leviathan, “Of the Natural Condition of Mankind as Concerning Their Felicity and Misery,” is one of the best known and most destructive passages in the entire history of political philosophy. In it, Hobbes speculates that a “state of nature” exists, or had existed, before men associate themselves into governments and subject themselves to a shared authority.

In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

First explored by Hobbes in De cives nine years earlier, the suggested state of nature is bellum omnium contra omnes—a war of all against all. “Men have no pleasure,” Hobbes claims, “but on the contrary a great deal of grief, in keeping company where there is no power able to overawe them all.” This state of nature, where there is no reigning authority, is not a single point in world history but one in particular social developments; for a contemporary example Hobbes points to “the savage people in many places of America, [who,] except the government of small families the concord whereof dependeth on natural lust, have no government at all, and live at this day in that brutish manner as I said before.”

Christopher Lasch and others have noted that Hobbes’ so-called state of nature was actually modeled on the “primitive capitalism” of England in the philosopher’s own day. Like most attempts to philosophize abstract truths about the human condition, it was deeply influenced by circumstance and experience. Unlike many theories based on empirical foundations, however, Hobbes’ state of nature does not happen to be true.

To some degree, we can’t fault Hobbes for not knowing what he didn’t know. He had, for instance, never visited the New World, and so could rely only on the panicked and slipshod dispatches of traders, explorers, and early colonists. He could not possibly have known that there existed on the American continent complex indigenous systems of hierarchy and authority, including multi-tribal federations that spanned across generations and served the exact purpose Hobbes ascribes to the socially contracted state; that not just the pagan empires of Mexico and the Mississippi but even the most primitive and isolated clans lived in a state of political order and observed conceptions of rank, power, duty, and more that were at root natural.

That latter point, though, is the key: Hobbes’ error is not just a misunderstanding of the political order of the native men of the Americas, but a misunderstanding of the very essence of political order and the actual nature of man. Humans are innately social creatures, and the family—which Hobbes disparages as “depend[ing] on natural lust”—is the first and fundamental social institution out of which all others grow. For as long as humanity has existed, society has existed also. There is no such thing as pre-political man.

But it would not be quite right to say there is no such thing as Hobbes’ state of nature—bellum omnium contra omnes. Of course, it does not exist as such—i.e., as the default condition of homo sapiens—but it does exist; it constructs itself. On the most basic level, the argument that every man is naturally opposed to every other, on becoming endemic, fulfills itself as a social prophecy. Hobbesian anthropology and the Hobbesian worldview inevitably breed the very hostility they purport to address.

Every bit as troubling and consequential, though, is the institutionalization of the problem—what we might call the ratchet of liberalism. Reconceiving ourselves as natural enemies, and reconceiving our politics as the consensual redirection of our innate hostility to our fellow man, we redefine government as merely a device through which the underlying conflict of human civilization runs—in the hopes, of course, that it will dissipate or twist itself into stalemate.

Because political institutions thus become loci of concentrated animus and will (rather than natural associations through which moral law is socialized and enforced), because liberalism—given its claims to universal legitimacy—is necessarily expansionist, and because the world we inhabit is finite, conflict at the level of government and between governments is far from abolished, and may in fact be increased. Because we have convinced ourselves that the solution to such conflict is contractual, we merely extend the logic of interpersonal relations upon which we founded them to the institutions themselves. When the problem recurs, rinse and repeat.

This is the long march of liberal history: always threatening the war of all against all and presenting as a solution merely the concentration and elevation of the problem. Thus the liberal world of universally opposed individuals forming themselves voluntarily into organizations of self-interest continuously creates institutions ever more powerful, ever more extensive, and ever more distant from the natural root of politics.

The Articles of Confederation—the second foundation of a liberal government in world history, after the Dutch invasion of 1688 effectively voided the English constitution—lasted eight years before the ratchet turned “in order to form a more perfect union.” Not four score years went by before the ratchet turned again. Another half century found the world at war, the logical results of which were the Treaty of Versailles and establishment of a League of Nations. The peace ensured thereby—peace, Hobbes tells us, being the purpose of government—lasted barely 20 years before a worse war broke out, necessitating the escalation to a United Nations, whose founding charter opens by stating the aim “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” The Cold War followed, then predictable attempts to spread liberalism to what Gen. Mark Milley called just weeks ago, in a Hobbesian turn, “ungoverned spaces”—i.e., states of nature.

We are entering the next stage of this process, the next turn of the liberal ratchet. It is not, as some might have guessed, a further expansion of global governmental power at the expense of nation-states—a new world order, in the common phrase. It is, rather, the expansion of state functions to non-state entities—the blurring (and potential erasure) of the line between governments and corporations.

This process has been underway for quite some time. Domestic peacekeeping is largely outsourced to private tech companies, with whom the federal government has partnered extensively for the surveillance of its citizens. On the global scale, national defense and international conflict are largely privatized as well, in manpower almost as much as in technology and production. The migration of much of human life and social contact to the digital world has accelerated the transformation and escalated it to new levels, generating a polity of the screen inhabited by anti-social, Hobbesian men detached from their natural realities.

Might as well make it official. At least, that’s what Ben Schott suggests in Bloomberg Opinion this week: “Give Amazon and Facebook a seat at the United Nations.”

And why not? In the inevitable conclusions of modern political theory, it’s right where they belong. This is what states are: authoritative and associative institutions set up to serve the individual through the exercise of power he cannot wield himself. Terms of service are social contracts written in binary code.

It’s worth recalling Lasch’s mention of capitalism as the basis of Hobbes’ theory. The hostile forces of capital—empowered a century before Hobbes’ writing by Henry VIII’s dissolution of England’s monasteries, as Hilaire Belloc once argued—which rely on the dispossession and exploitation of the many and set man up against man and against the natural order, inspired Hobbes’ theory of the universal concept of human relations. Because the logic of capital undergirds the logic of the modern state, it is fitting—if not inevitable—that the distinction between the two should pass away. (This, too, Belloc saw coming.)

This is perhaps the last turn of the ratchet. It nearly completes the revolutionary proposition at the root of the project of modernity: the revolt against nature, the replacement of the natural and the supernatural with the purely voluntary, the destruction of the tangible signs of what we are and the institutions that remind us. We replaced kings—the very word is tied to “kin,” and both stem from a root word meaning “birth”—with elected pretenders and now replace them with Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, the architects and overlords of an unreal world. What could be less reminiscent of our beginning or less prophetic of our end?

The end of Hobbes’ vision is stasis: a ceasefire in the bellum omnium contra omnes invented in the process. It is an end entirely without substance, a promise that modern man can hope, if he submits, for nothing in particular.

We must fight this first by redefining the beginning. There is no such thing as the atomic man, much less the state of nature. As a matter of absolute and ineradicable fact, each and every human being enters this world as part of a social and cooperative institution. The true state of nature, the beginning of man, is in the arms of a mother, with a father watching over both. From this starting point, social order expands outward and upward, to fraternal and paternal relationships likewise rooted in the naturality of politics.

From there, we can redefine the end as something more than the mere avoidance of temporal conflict. We can see it prefigured in that initial scene. (In our beginning is our end; the right’s great poet knew this.) If, then, we can rebuild our understanding of nature, and rebuild—ascending, like the liberal ratchet—renewed politics on its basis, that political renewal can point towards the proper end, and remind us that it, rather than a theoretical approximation of social nothingness, is the alpha and omega of human conduct. Our end is neither neutrality, nor stasis, nor a victory over nature, but value, pure act, and the fulfillment of nature. As we begin we might remember that End became, like us, incarnate—and did so to bring not peace but a sword.

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