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

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What’s the connection between Hobbes’ or Locke’s depiction of market relations, soon to emerge as the dominant mode of relations between individuals, and their political theory? In particular, what’s the function of the “self-ownership” postulate (and all that it entails) in eventually forming the centerpiece of that theory? We may grant that the aforementioned postulate may well be deemed essential when it comes to depicting pure or ideal market conditions, but what does it have to do with the political?

Ms Balibar, the author of the seminal article cited in Part I, poses this question in slightly different terms. She reminds us that,

[i]n the sociological tradition, it was never resolved whether possessive individualism represented a general structure of social organization which had triumphed under certain historical conditions, or whether it was typical only of a specific realm of human behavior, e.g., the economic realm, where the generalization of market institutions imposed the anthropological figure of homo oeconomicus.

Be that as it may, we can be certain of the underlying intention, which was to merge both the economic and political behavior to form an integral whole.

In any event, it should be apparent by now that in asking such questions, we’re not asking about the actual conditions which happened to prevail or failed to prevail in Locke’s or Hobbes’ time. The fact that the original franchise was restricted by property requirements is but a contingent fact and of no theoretical, only empirical interest (as the eventual lifting of those restrictions, resulting in universal franchise, has surely proved).

Indeed, even with universal franchise in place, the proposition that the propertied class continued to exercise its dominance when it came to running the affairs of the commonwealth; any such observation, even if true, is likewise only of empirical, not theoretical, import. That’s not what Hobbes or Locke were about. The object was to establish the need of a sovereign as a necessary condition for there being a viable and lasting commonwealth; and part of that project entailed deducing the concept of political obligation on the part of the subject.

In Hobbes’ case, at least, that obligation had to be absolute and irrevocable; and he based it on the assumption that all were equally insecure in that “if there were no [one] power able to overawe them all, their lives would necessarily be miserable and insecure in the utmost degree.” (This followed from Hobbes’ fundamental premise that all men, whether by natural inclination or the force of circumstance, were equally desirous of amassing ever more power over others.) There was also a postulate stating that, regardless of circumstances, “men necessarily seek to live, and to live commodiously.” And given the “rationality” assumption, Hobbes concluded that (rational) men “must make, or act as if they had made, a covenant with each other by which they all simultaneously transfer to some man or body of men the rights they would have to protect themselves if there were no common power to protect them.”

That’s the bottom line of any social contract-based political theory; and it concerns the hypothetical transfer of the appropriate rights (mostly those having to do with protecting oneself, to include one’s property) to another, which transfer creates obligation to the sovereign.

As stated, Hobbes’ was an extreme version. Ms Balibar puts it thus:

. . . there are essential reasons why Hobbes would absolutely refuse the notion of “self-ownership” as a political notion – since it would establish competing authorities and obligations5 – and therefore also as a philosophical or anthropological one.

We see it was Locke therefore, not Hobbes, who had allowed for what we recognize today as factional and confrontantional politics, along with the remote possibility of overthrowing the government, in the event the government (for one reason or another) doesn’t deliver. No wonder it was Locke rather than Hobbes, who had become the presumptive father of the liberal theory: it stands to reason that even the ruling class, not unlike the nobility of old, would like to reserve for itself the ultimate right to depose the sovereign (if and when need be).

But popular opinion be damned, and general sentiment and all appearances to the contrary, too, each of which being a poor index of the underlying reality. Hobbes may have been a purist compared to Locke, but he did capture better than anyone the tenor of our times: it’s all about statism, the heart of the liberal theory! By way of consolation, let me state that our conservative brethren are in the same boat, too.

In retrospect, if Locke’s version of liberalism was lukewarm, something we can vaguely imagine we could live with, Hobbes’s was hardcore.

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About Roger Nowosielski

  • jamminsue

    Good job, Roger. I never thought of Hobbes as liberal, but you have convinced me here….I always thought Locke basically re-wrote Hobbes in more polite language.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Well, Locke did as a matter of fact; made it more palatable. But I’m more than convinced that Hobbes laid out the foundations.

  • jamminsue

    Yes, I agree that Hobbes laid it out. He was not the original, but definitley did organize the ideas in a scientific manner.

    Hobbes wanted to take Political Theory and turn it into a science, which before him, it was not.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Exactly!

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