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Hobbes and Locke Revisited: The Foundations of the Modern Liberal State, Part XIV

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Market emerges thus as the main venue, the one arena in which all and all alike can (freely?) act upon and reenact their natural desires, some more actively, others less so, as they all go about pursuing their own interests, And this is taken more or less for granted by both theorists, Hobbes and Hayek; which brings another question to mind: in what respects, then, does Hayek’s account diverge from Hobbes’s own view?

As far as I’m concerned, the difference between the two can be traced to one thing and one thing only: Hayek’s rather lackadaisical account of the behavior on the part of all those who are subject to the forces of the market.  Hobbes conceived of the market as an all-determinant, irresistible force, virtually enslaving each and every one, both the most powerful as well as the least, to its impersonal dictates, well nigh predicting everybody’s response. But Hayek’s picture of the average participant, willing or unwilling, was of a happy-go-lucky, innocent bystander with everything to gain, nothing to lose. While Hobbes’s emphasis was on market constraints, Hayek’s was on its freedoms.

Both views have much to recommend themselves, as each expresses a partial truth, an aspect of the institution we call the market. One gets a distinct impression, however, that it is Hayek who errs on the side of undue optimism; he looks at the phenomenon of the market and market-related activities through rose colored glasses.

Consider one example of such an activity: vulgar consumerism (commodity fetishism was Marx’s term).  It’s certainly the most passive form of participation in the operations of the market, both passive as well as indispensable, for which very reason it’s tailor-made to fit Hayek’s rather shallow depiction of the average happy-go-lucky, unsuspecting participant. But why should awareness, or self-awareness, as to the vagaries or causes of one’s behavior be a relevant determination at all?

A particle that is subject to a Brownian motion, or a body to a gravitational pull, behave as they do, end of story. Awareness or consciousness have nothing to do with the forces which determine their movement. I suggest it’s no different with the unsuspecting consumer, Hayek’s poster boy for unfettered, happy capitalism. Passive or not, I say, experiencing a sense of freedom while in effect in bondage, he or she is equally complicit in the operations of the market, equally subject to its impersonal forces as all those who are fully aware of them and act on that knowledge. Again, consciousness has nothing to do with it. It doesn’t alter the facts.

It’s precisely this view of capitalism and its adjunct institution, the market: of capitalism with a happy face, which makes Hayek dismiss the alternative view of individualism which, according to some analysts (McPherson, for instance), comes part and parcel with the system, as caricature. But caricature or not, “possessive individualism,” the idea that the ethos of modernity may well be defined by our never-ending desire for ever greater accumulation of wealth and possessions, is not as easy to dislodge. Even vulgar consumerism, a trivial example to be sure, testifies to this effect; most compellingly so one might add, precisely because it is trivial.

In a sense, Hayek reveals his real prejudices and biases when he argues on behalf of private property as though a sacred institution; his idea of a prerequisite for an orderly society. Never mind the fact that in so doing, he, in effect, espouses the idea of “possessive individualism,” the very idea he’s so intent on defeating. It’s certainly a blind spot on his part, an ideological dead end. More succinctly, perhaps, there is nothing whatever to justify such a conclusion, or postulate, as the case may be. Cooperative communities, based on mutual aid and co-operation, have been around since the beginning of time; and they’ve been known to be successful.

Hayek’s inattention to this fact speaks volumes. Only ideology could make a person of his intellectual stature so blind.

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About Roger Nowosielski

  • Lord Igor

    Good article! First one I’ve enjoyed in this series. Maybe I’ll go back and read the others.

  • roger nowosielski

    It would help to get some feedback. I believe I’m on the right track starting slowly, with fundamentals, but I believe one’s got to be thorough here; even if it doesn’t make at this point for the most interesting reading.

    In any case, it’s just a stab. Once I work my way through, I should be able to make my case with greater facility.

  • Igor

    My basic premise is that Capitalism and Communism are two sides of the same coin. Or two brothers, like Cain and Abel (anyone can choose his favorite for Cain). They are both based on ideas of capital accumulation and industrialization and domination of nature.

    A pox on both their houses!

    So even with two apparent opposites like Hayek and Hobbes a person has to search out things on which they differ.

  • roger nowosielski

    The object of these essays, Igor, is to expose the shaky foundations of the modern liberal state.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Roger –

    You’ve been articulate on what you oppose, but what are you for? I mean, I know you supported anarchism in the past, but do you have a different view other than anarchism?

  • roger nowosielski

    No, I still consider it the most consistent position for theoretical standpoint, but I’d like for it to emerge in the course of these essays.

  • Glenn Contrarian

    Okay. As I agreed with you and Cindy (in the same thread where I agreed that I was wrong that such could never work), the anarchistic system that is in place in provincial Mexico seems to be working fairly well. Such might work on a larger scale, but unfortunately such would require willingness to relinquish power by those who think they have too much to lose.

  • roger nowosielski

    One way to render other people’s power less effective is to stop depending on it. If Greece, for instance, were to exit the Euro and the global financial system and set itself on rebuilding its economy from ground up, that would be one example of rendering the power of the global financial system less effective (at least insofar as Greece is concerned).

  • Glenn Contrarian

    True enough – one can only hope.

  • Leroy

    In the USA we have to break up the overgrown financial monopolies and industrial monopolies. And we have to be far more reluctant to allow the large consolidations from mergers and acquisitions that we’ve allowed in the past. As we can all see, the current permissive climate just allows horrible ideas like “too big to fail”, which could not happen if companies were kept smaller and competition reigned.

    Big companies just make possible bigger and more horrendous failures. But CEOs and their ilk LIKE getting bigger because that justifies bigger salaries for themselves, and it’s easier to hide your mistakes, for awhile. Then when there’s a crash it’s horrendous. And there will ALWAYS be a crash.

    Clients and stakeholders are not protected by larger companies, only the top executives are.